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Primary sources: a guide for historians

Introduction

Whether you are beginning a junior paper, a senior thesis, or a doctoral dissertation in history, the first challenge is to identify a cache of primary source material that addresses the issue, person, place, or period that interests you. This guide offers some general suggestions about how to get started.

About primary sources

Primary sources can be either published or unpublished, and can be found in many formats, such as manuscripts, books, microfilm, photographs, video and sound recordings. Some primary sources are available in more than one format -- for example, a collection of manuscript letters may also have been published in book form, or may have been digitized and made available on the Internet. Begin by asking two basic questions:

  • What evidence was created?
  • What evidence was saved, and where?

What evidence was created?

For the most part, the evidence used by historians to answer historical questions was not created for that purpose. The evidence of the past -- official records, personal papers, videorecordings, physical remains -- was created to serve the purposes of people with very different agendas. Nonetheless, it is very useful to think about some broad categories of evidence, in part because understanding these categories can help you find the material you need.

  • The records and publications of governments
  • The records and publications of organizations
  • The papers of individuals
  • Material culture -- buildings, artifacts, and art

It is particularly useful to consider whether the material you need would have been published (newspapers, books) or would have had a more limited circulation (intra-office memos, personal correspondence, a private photo album.)

What evidence was saved, and where?

Think about who might have collected the material you're hoping to find:

  • Published primary sources like newspapers, books, and government reports are likely to be held in libraries.
  • Unpublished documents and administrative records produced by national government agencies are likely to be held in national archives; those produced by local administrations are likely to be held in municipal record offices or state archives.
  • Materials produced by an organization or business will likely be held by that organization if it still exists; if it no longer exists, look for an affiliated organization or a library or archive that collects material on that topic.
  • Personal papers, diaries, and materials related to local history are likely to be held in local libraries or historical societies.
  • Museum, archives and libraries all have collections of art and artifacts as well a written records.

Some examples:

  • The records of the U.S. federal government are held at the National Archives.
  • The records of the New York City government are at the New York City Municipal Archives (but much other important material on NYC is at the New York Public Library or the New-York Historical Society.)
  • The personal papers of Harry Truman are held at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri.
  • The records of the British East India Company are held at the British Library.
  • The records of the Triangle Club are at the University Archives at Princeton.

Finally, keep in mind that the material you need may be scattered among several libraries and archives.

A general strategy for finding primary sources

  • Consult the bibliography, notes and acknowledgments in a good, recent secondary work on the subject that interests you -- does the writer tell you where the primary sources can be found?
  • Can you identify an important person who was involved in the events you are studying? If he/she is famous, dead, and either British or American, consult the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography or American National Biography.The articles in both DNB and ANB generally have excellent bibliographies and will tell you where that person's papers may be found.
    • If you still haven't found that person's papers, search Worldcat for that person as an Author. You will find both published and unpublished material by that person.
  • Can you identify an organization that was involved in the events you are studying? Search Worldcat for that organization as an Author.
  • Search ArchiveGrid or Archive Finder , two databases that list archival collections in the U.S. and elsewhere.
  • To find printed subject guides to archival resources in the library catalogs, do a keyword search for a subject term plus archiv?, e.g. brewing and archiv?
  • Google your topic, using words like "papers" or "archives" as part of your search.

Librarian for (United States) History & African American Studies

Steven Knowlton