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Finding Primary Sources for History Research

How to find books, documents, magazine articles, newspaper articles and other first hand or eyewitness accounts.

Good Sites Describing Primary Resources

These sites provide good overviews of primary resources for historical research.

Using Primary Sources on the Web

Yale University Guide to Primary Resources

UCLA Institute on Primary Resources

What Are Primary Sources: Some Examples

Your professors may be impressed if you know how to find, identify and use PRIMARY SOURCES in your class assignments. What are they?

Simply put: They are documents, letters, accounts, descriptions, photographs or drawings of events created as close to the event as possible. They tend to be less affected by retrospection and expert opinion. They are "as it happened," "what I experienced" or eyewitness, accounts that tend to be untainted by historical analysis.

Your professors will want you to use SECONDARY SOURCES to support your analysis of a topic. Secondary sources may use primary sources in their research, however secondary sources are usually more removed in time and place from the historical event. Secondary sources are written by persons who did not experience or witness the event or did not know the person(s) involved. Secondary source publications tend to base their text on scholarly analysis of other scholars.

EXAMPLES some might quibble with these examples, but the main issue is, "how close to the actual event or person is the evidence."

The topic: Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

These would be considered PRIMARY

  • Papers, letters, or correspondence of Abraham Lincoln discussing the preparation, delivery and results of the speech.
  • Books, papers, diaries, or correspondence of anyone who personally knew Lincoln; his staff, or political associates discussing the event within their lifetime.
  • A newspaper or magazine account written at the time the address was spoken, or shortly thereafter.
  • Any diaries, correspondence or recollections of eyewitness of the address written during their lifetime.
  • Minutes of meetings of groups preparing for the event, letters and papers of organizers of the event.
  • Any photographs, drawings or illustrations composed at the time of the event.

These would be considered SECONDARY

  • A book or journal article written years after the Gettysburg Address by someone who did not personally know or witness the events, or interpreting primary sources above to support their text and conclusions.
  • A documentary film about the Gettysburg Address providing interviews of scholars discussing the event.
  • A popular magazine or newspaper article, written years after the event providing an account of what happened.
  • Scholarly journal articles using the conclusions of other authors to support their statements.

The topic: The Crusades of the Middle Ages

These would be considered PRIMARY

  • The closest items to true "primariness" would be written in archaic Latin, French or Arabic script. For topics far removed from the present era you would have to settle for "close to primary," since the ones most students could read would be modern language translations of old texts.
  • Any accounts of the crusades written at the time of the Crusades, and translated into modern English.
  • Maps, woodcuts, tapestries, paintings, weapons, artifacts or buildings of the crusades depicted in books, journals and museums.

These would be SECONDARY

  • Any items written a lifetime after the Crusades ended.
  • Any journal articles or books using another's research in their text and bibliographies.
  • Any documentary films using expert analysis on the history of the Crusades.

The Topic: Jim Crow Segregation in United States

These would be considered PRIMARY

  • Personal narratives, interviews, diaries, correspondence, or oral histories, either in books or journal articles, of anyone who supported, experienced, or witnessed Jim Crow segregation.
  • Minutes of meetings, planning documents, notes of associations or groups for or against segregation.
  • Newspaper accounts and popular magazine descriptions of segregation, if they are eyewitness or personal experiences.
  • Official documents, laws, regulations, upholding or overturning segregation laws.
  • Census records, statistics, or polls documenting numbers or populations involved.
  • Films or audio recordings depicting Jim Crow segregation, or interviewing those who experienced it.
  • Images, photographs  of Jim Crow artifacts (separate fountains, bathrooms, signs, entrances, etc.)

These would be SECONDARY

  • Publications, books or journal articles using second hand reports, or using another persons research to support their text and conclusions.
  • Books, magazines or other publications by persons who did not themselves experience or witness segregation.
  • Items written after the segregation era, by those who did not experience or witness the Jim Crow era.

The Topic: The Life of James Dean, the actor

These would be considered PRIMARY

  • Anything Dean himself wrote while not acting in a role: letters, diaries, poems.
  • Any print or film or audio interviews with Dean.
  • Home movies of Dean or sound recording of Dean when not acting.
  • Artifacts associated with Dean, clothing, cars, personal belongings.
  • Anything written about Dean by close relatives or friends, especially before his death.
  • Images of Dean, especially while not in in an acting role.
  • Some popular magazine or newspaper articles written about Dean while he was alive, especially if Dean personally interacted with the author.

These would be considered SECONDARY

  • Articles written after Dean died.
  • Any media in which he played a role as an actor.
  • Books or articles written about Dean by people who did not personally know him.
  • Scholarly journal articles that have bibliographies using the sources listed above.