Answered By: Jeffrey Orrico
Last Updated: Apr 12, 2022     Views: 137

In historical research, "Primary sources are materials produced by people or groups directly involved in the event or topic under consideration, either as participants or as witnesses.  . . . Some primary sources are written documents, such as letters, diaries, newspaper and magazine articles, speeches, autobiographies, treatises, census data, and marriage, birth, and death registers." (Rampolla, Mary Lynn. A Pocket Guide to Writing History. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin's, 2007, pp. 6-7.)

In addition to these text records, audio and visual records may also be primary sources, such as recorded interviews, video records, photographs, maps, sketches,  and "realia" - the objects of history themselves - archaeological elements, clothing, tools, household items, weapons, buildings, etc.

In  fields which focus on contemporary research (such as psychology, marketing, and medicine), "primary sources" could include original data recorded from test subjects, survey data, experimental methods and results, etc.  In all cases, "primary sources" are the raw material that subject experts collect and independently analyze in order to form new understandings and theories about their subjects.

Original, unedited and unaltered primary sources are more often found in specialized archival libraries or museums.  More general libraries (such as our University library) may maintain small, focused archival collections.  Reprinted, excerpted, or collected journals and diaries are sometimes commercially published, for example The Diary of Anne Frank

To locate primary source materials in our library's collection, begin by answering these questions:

  1. Who are the individuals and groups associated with the time/place/event/people that you are researching?  Reference sources (such as subject matter encyclopedias) can provide an efficient overview of these.  For example, if your project concerned Viet Nam, it would be important to know the traditional southeast Asian ethnic groups native to the region (e.g.  Montagnards, Hmong, Khmer), the role of other Asian nations (e.g., China and Japan) in its history, and the western nations and religious groups which were significant in its history.
  2. What significant events, disasters, places, monarchies, dictatorships, governments, eras, etc., are associated with the subject you're researching.  Be sure to consider alternative names for each of these.
  3. What types of primary source material could one hope to find for the time/place/event/people that you are researching?  For example, in researching Native Americans at the time of the arrival of the Europeans (ca. 1492-1700), you will not find primary source photographic records.  However, if your research concerned the beliefs of mid-nineteenth century European-Americans about Native American relations with colonists, you might find photographs of "tableaux" representations of Native Americans.  Since the first written representation of a Native American language was that developed by European missionaries, you won't find primary source diaries or journals of their encounters with Christopher Columbus, although you can find journals of the European explorers.

Mine the data! Make note of terminology you find in one source to search for other sources. Check the subject headings used. Ask a reference librarian for help in identifying official subject headings.

From those leads, you can search for library materials that might include reproductions of such primary source material.  Use words such as "diary", "journal", "narrative", together with the time/place/event/people that you are researching?

Remember, it is the task of you, the scholar, to assess an item and judge its value as  a "primary source".  You cannot rely on someone else's labeling of an item as "primary source" any more than you would rely on someone else's labeling of a recording as "beautiful music".

Links & FIles:

History (comprehensive subject guide)

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