Finding Primary Sources

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Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary Sources Primary sources are first-person accounts or direct evidence of the topics or events you are researching. They may include letters, diaries, photographs, autobiographies, records such as birth certificates or land deeds, treaties and other government documents, news footage and eyewitness articles, plays, movies, works of art, speeches, interviews, oral histories, memoirs, architectural plans, and many other kinds of artifacts.

Secondary Sources Secondary sources analyze, summarize, interpret, or comment on primary sources. They are usually created by someone who did not experience an event first-hand. They may include biographies, scholarly journal articles, literary criticism, political analysis, news reports other than first-hand accounts, reference books, and textbooks.

What About Newspapers? As noted in this video, some sources may be considered primary or secondary, depending on how you use them. For example, a 1969 newspaper article that discusses the moon landing that year could be considered a secondary source. But if you are interested in how NASA was portrayed by the media during the Cold War, the same article could be considered a primary source as an historical artifact.

Example: Primary and Secondary Sources in the Egypt Revolution

Primary Sources Tweets by Egyptian protestors Photos taken and articles written by journalists who witnessed the Egyptian protests Video on Egyptian TV of the announcement of Mubarak’s resignation Email sent from an Egyptian student who witnessed the protests to her family outside of Egypt

Secondary Sources Your Facebook status updates expressing your opinion about the Egyptian protests Middle East expert's upcoming paper on the Egyptian protests News commentator's analysis of Mubarak's resignation Email sent from an Egyptian student's family to their friends, relaying what she told them about witnessing the protests

Searching Catalog for Primary Sources

Search the catalog for books on your topic.

Adding these terms to your topic in your search could yield primary source material:

  • documents
  • charters
  • correspondence
  • diaries
  • early works
  • interviews
  • manuscripts
  • oratory
  • pamphlets
  • personal narratives
  • sources
  • speeches
  • letters
  • documents

Using Library Databases to Find Primary Source Material

To access databases from off campus you will need to log-in with your pipeline account number and password.

  • ARTstor May be useful for finding primary sources for some topics in Western Civilization, as it provides images in a variety of subject areas (includes prints, posters, maps, photographs).
  • History Reference Center In the ADVANCED SEARCH, Limit your search to "Publication Type" = PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENT ; primary sources include treaties, photos, maps, and videos.
  • JSTOR Some journals published as early as the mid 19th century could be considered primary sources depending on your research topic.
  • World Book Encyclopedia Includes primary sources and thousands of fiction and non-fiction ebooks as well as encyclopedia articles.

Finding Primary Source Material on the Internet

Here is just a sample of some excellent sites (usually sponsored by a university or a government agency) which have primary sources organized around one or more historical themes or a particular time period.

  • Ad*Access (Duke University Libraries Digital Collections)- Includes images of over 7,000 ads printed in the U.S. and Canada between 1911 and 1955.
  • American Memory (Library of Congress) - Includes "written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience." Check out the other Library of Congress digital collections as well.
  • The Avalon Project (Yale Law School) - Includes documents in law, history, economics, politics, diplomacy, and government from ancient times to the present.
  • Calisphere (University of California) - Includes over 150,000 digitized primary sources.
  • Cybrary of the Holocaust. This is one of several Internet collections on the subject and probably the best. Contains many documents and images of survivors, perpetrators, Holocaust deniers, liberators, etc.
  • EuroDocs - Includes Western European historical documents.
  • In the First Person - Includes "close to 4,000 collections of personal narratives in English from around the world."
  • Making of America (University of Michigan) - This project is a huge digital library of primary sources having to do with nineteenth-century American history.
  • Making of America (Cornell University) - Contains approximately 5,000 books and journal volumes with nineteenth-century imprints. It is made possible by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
  • 19th Century Documents Project. From the site: "When completed this collection will include accurate transcriptions of many important and representative primary texts from nineteenth century American history, with special emphasis on those sources that shed light on sectional conflict and transformations in regional identity."
  • World Digital Library makes available on the Internet, free of charge and in multilingual format, significant primary materials from countries and cultures around the world.

Finding Primary Sources in Archival Collections

Ask for Help

Reference librarians are available to assist you with your research. Feel free to contact a reference librarian through instant messaging, by phone (805) 730-4444, or e-mail.

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