Finding Primary Sources
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I. What are Primary Sources?
Primary sources are the evidence left behind by participants or
"Primary sources originate in the time period that historians are studying. They vary a great deal. They may include personal memoirs, government documents, transcripts of legal proceedings, oral histories and traditions, archaeological and biological evidence, and visual sources like paintings and photographs. " ( Storey, William Kelleher. Writing History: A guide for Students. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999, p.18).
II. The Formats of Primary Sources
The categories below are neither rigorously exclusive nor hierarchical. A single primary source may overlap one or more of these categories. Some material may have appeared in print before, edited or unedited. For instance, a manuscript may have been printed and published at some point as a book. " Nonetheless, these categories have proven to be practical concepts for organizing and describing the kinds of sources that document history, and secondary sources, such as bibliographies, often focus on materials in one of these formats or categories." ( Yale University Library Primary Sources Research, http://www.libary.yale.edu/ref/err/primsrcs.htm).
|1.||Printed or published text|
|A monograph is "a systematic and complete treatise on a particular subject" (ALA glossary of library and information science, Chicago: ALA, 1983, p.48), in one or many volumes, complete at the time of publication or published with the intention of being completed at some future date.|
||A serial is a publication that is usually published at regular, established intervals, with the intention of continuing publication indefinitely. Magazines and newspapers -- often offer the most immediate published accounts of and reactions to historical events. The important thing is to distinguish between material written at the time of an event as a kind of report, and material written much later, as historical analysis.|
||Government documents are publications issued by federal, state, municipal and international governments.|
||The minutes, reports, correspondence, etc. of an organization or agency serve as an ongoing record of the activity and thinking of that organization or agency. There are many kinds of records, such as: births, deaths, marriages certificates; permits and licenses issued; census data; etc.|
|2.||Manuscripts||Documents created by individuals, not as employees or representatives of an organization, are called manuscripts or personal papers. These documents can be either hand-written or typed, varying in length from a single note or letter to a full-length book. Include among other things: personal papers, memoirs, autobiographies, correspondence, diaries, letters, artificial collections, etc.|
|3.||Archives||Archival documents may be either personal papers or institutional archives. They could include bulletins, case files, contracts, correspondence, diaries, journals, ledgers, memoirs, memorandums, minutes, photographs, reports, rosters, and videorecordings.|
|4.||Visual Materials / Artifacts|
||single paintings, drawings, watercolors, sculpture, architectural drawings, and plans, monoprints|
||graphic art, etchings, engravings, lithographs, woodcuts, mezzotints, posters, trade cards, artists' prints, and computer-generated graphics|
||buildings, furniture, tools, appliances, household items, clothing, etc.|
|5.||Digital collections||Digital collections may have been transferred from their original format to a machine-readable form or, may exist only as electronic resources. Data may be stored on disk, computer tape, CD-ROM or from Internet sites.|
III. Strategies for Finding Primary Sources
Locating primary source materials to use in a research paper can be a daunting task. Professional historians travel widely to find all the relevant sources for a given historical topic and may spend years in repositories accumulating data for their research. Students rarely have the time or resources to go wherever the primary sources are. What can a student do?
|Where to find|
|The Library Collection||addresses, correspondence, diaries, documents, interviews, periodicals, personal narratives, sources, speeches, etc...|
|The World Wide Web||American
Perseus Digital Library http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/ etc...
|Archival Institutions||Governmental archives||National Archives-Pacific Southwest Region, Laguna Nigel; Ronald Reagan Library, Simi Valley; California State Archives, Sacramento; etc...|
|Institutional archives||Episcopal Diocese of California, Archives, San Fransisco; Hewlett-Packard Company, Archives, Palo Alto; etc...|
|Historical societies||Santa Barbara Historical Society, Santa Barbara; Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, Los Angeles; etc...|
|Special collections in libraries||California State University, Northridge, Urban Archives Center, Northridge; UCLA Department of Special Collections, Los Angeles; UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library, Manuscripts Division, Berkeley; etc...|
1. Searching Primary Sources on Library Catalog
Using the Online Catalog
Web-based CSULA Catalog
You can access the CSULA Online Library Catalog from the Library Web's main page at /library/. The Cal State LA Library collection has wealth of resources for primary sources for historical research on a wide variety of topics. The Catalog allows you to conduct both basic and advanced searches, and also allows you to send search results to your email addresses.
Searching by Subject
In order to use the Catalog to find primary sources on a subject, you must first identify the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). To determine the appropriate subject headings associated with your topic you can:
A). Look in the five red volumes of the Library of Congress Subject Headings book located next to the Reference desk, 1st Floor, Library North.
B). Look up the catalog record for a book that you already know about. Click on the subject displayed below the book status information, and do a redirect search.
C). Ask a librarian or library staff member at the reference desk.
Once you have identified the appropriate Library of Congress Subject Headings, you can pair that heading with specific subheadings that identify materials as primary sources.
Examples of the subject headings and subheadings are:
Subject Headings: [name of country] - history - [time period]
e.g. united states history 1933-1945 or
united states history
You can append any of the subheadings listed above with a Library of Congress Subject Heading to specifically search for primary source materials.
Subject /keyword searching tends to be more effective with CSULA catalog. If you don't find results using subject search, try to do a keyword search using the same search term(s).
Searching by Keyword
Keyword or key phrase searching can be very effective. Some keyword examples are:
great depression and oral history
labor history sources
ancient Rome sources
|Sample Search Titles||Call#|
|100 key documents in American democracy||E173 .A15 1994|
|Documents of American history||E173 .C66 1958|
|America through the eyes of its people, Primary sources in American history||E 173.A723 1997|
|The inaugural addresses of the presidents of the united States 1789-1985||E 173 I52 Oversize|
|Major problems in the Civil War and Reconstruction : documents and essays||E464 .M22 1991|
|They saw it happen in classical times; an anthology of eye-witnesses' accounts of events in the histories of Greece and Rome, 1400 B. C.-A. D. 540.||D52.W6|
|Ancient Greece : social and historical documents from archaic times to the death of Socrates (800-399 B.C.)||DF75.D55 2000|
|Ancient Sparta, a re-examination of the evidence||DF261.S8 A85 1971|
|Collected letters of a Renaissance feminist||PA85.C4 A4 1997|
Provides catalog access to 38+ million holdings worldwide. Includes catalog records for books, journals, films, sound recordings, videos, etc.
- WorldCat is useful for locating books in nearby L.A. area libraries. You can access WorldCat via the Library Web's databases page at /library/mudir1.htm or click on Databases from the Library Web main page.
2. Using Periodical and Newspaper Indexes Covering the Time Period
Use periodical and newspaper index covering the time period of the events you're researching to identify contemporary accounts. These indexes are available in either print or on the Web.
Examples of search terms:
[Country adjective, e.g. American] periodicals--bibliography
[Name of ethnic group] native american periodicals
|Sample Search Titles||Call #|
|A history of early American Magazines 1741-1789||PN4877.R5|
|A history and bibliography of American magazines 1810-1820||PN4877 .E3|
|American newspapers, 1821-1936; a union list of files available in the United States and Canada||Z6945 .A53|
|Extant collections of early Black newspapers : a research guide to the Black press, 1880-1915, with an index to the Boston guardian, 1902-1904||Z6944.N39 C357|
|Native American periodicals and newspapers, 1828-1982 : bibliography, publishing record, and holdings||Z1209.2.U5 D36 1984|
|New York Times Index 1913-||AI21 .N44|
|Nineteenth century readers' guide to periodical literature, 1890-1899, with supplementary indexing, 1900-1922.||AI3 .R399|
|Readers' guide to periodical literature||AI3 .R4|
3. Identifying Popular Fiction, Movies, and Plays from the Time Period
To identify works of literature, films or popular fiction dealing with a particular event, you can consult one of the following print indexes:
There are also handbooks and websites which can be used to identify films by theme and date such as:
- Fiction Catalog Z5916 .W74
- Short Story Index PN6014 S56b
- Play Index Z5781.P53
- Internet Movie Database http://us.imdb.com
4. Using Indexes to Government Documents
Publications generated by a government body, public records, reports and statistics such as census records, laws, Supreme Court decisions and treaties, are excellent sources of primary materials. Go to the reference desk for assistance in locating government documents related to your topic. You can also search several indexes to government documents available on the Web from the Library Web's Government Info page (/sites/default/files/library/dbs/~gis.htm).
- Advanced Search in Library Catalog
- Marcive (U.S. Federal Documents, 1976-current)
- Melvyl (California Documents, all years)
5. Searching Primary Sources on the Web
Many Web sites contain excellent primary resources. Below is a list of web sites for primary historical sources, but is not intended to be comprehensive. You are encouraged to search the Web using search engines.
To find a list of search engines to use,
please check the Web Search Engines page at
Examples of search terms:
united states history primary sources
great depression photographs
dust bowl interviews
Please note that search engines only cover a section of the Internet
Major search engines search less than one-half of all web pages.
Please note that more and more information is being lost to the invisible web
Many web pages are database generated and are not searched by major search engines.
For invisible web search assistance, go to the University of California, Berkeley Library The Invisible Web tutorial (http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/TeachingLib/Guides/Internet/InvisibleWeb.html)
and Librarian's Index to the Internet (http://www.lii.org/)
Make sure you are a critical consumer
Anyone can publish a web page and make it accessible to the world. Beware of bias, mistakes and outright fabrication.
For help, go to the library's Evaluating Information on the World Wide Web (/sites/default/files/library/evaluatewww.htm).
1) General Primary Sources
Perseus Digital Library http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/
Digital library of resources for the study of the ancient world. Originally begun with coverage of the Archaic and Classical Greek world, has now expanded to Latin text and tools, Renaissance materials, and Papyri. Contains hundreds of texts by the major ancient authors and lexica and morphological databases and catalog entries for over 2,800 vases, sculptures, coins, buildings, and sites, including over 13,000 photographs of such objects.
- American Memory from the Library of Congress
Consists of collections of primary source and archival material relating to American culture and history. Topics include: African American Civil War, Conservation Movement, Continental Congress, Farm Security Administration, Architectural History, Early Motion Pictures, Variety Stage, Woman Suffrage, the papers of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, Today in History, Portraits of the Presidents and First Ladies, 1789-Present, and more.
- American Memory Timeline http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/ndlpedu/features/timeline/
Primary sources for seven time periods of United States history are provided at this site covering 1783-1968. Each period is subdivided into various topics and contains an overview. Included are images, letters, lyrics, interviews, and more.
- American Treasures of the Library of Congress
An unprecedented permanent exhibition of the rarest, most interesting or significant items relating to America's past.
- A Chronology of US Historical Documents
US historical documents arranged from pre-colonial era to present.
Eighteenth-Century Studies http://eserver.org/18th/
Covers archives works of the eighteenth century from the perspectives of literary and cultural studies. Novels, plays, memoirs, treatises and poems of the period are kept here (in some cases, influential texts from before 1700 or after 1800 as well), along with modern criticism.
Historical Newspapers Online http://historynews.chadwyck.com/
Historical Newspapers Online is a website that provides valuable reference material of nineteenth and twentieth century history. It contains some of the best news coverage across two centuries.
- Making of America http://moa.umdl.umich.edu/
Making of America (MOA) is a digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. The collection is particularly strong in the subject areas of education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology. The collection currently contains approximately 8,500 books and 50,000 journal articles with 19th century imprints. The project represents a major collaborative endeavor in preservation and electronic access to historical texts.
- Nineteenth Century Documents Project http://www.furman.edu/~benson/docs/
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.
- Primary Source Collections
A list of Internet Resources from American Memory web site.
- Repositories of Primary Sources http://www.uidaho.edu/special-collections/Other.Repositories.html
This site contains links to "over 3,400 Web sites describing holdings of manuscripts, archives, rare books, historical photographs, and other primary sources for the research scholar." Access is by region or by an alphabetical index of state, province, or country. "The list focuses on actual repositories; therefore virtual collections are excluded." There is also a list of other's lists of archives and repositories.
2) Visual Materials
- America from the Great
Depression to World War II http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsowhome.html
55,000 black and white (more coming) and 1600 color photographs from the Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information collection have been digitized. Includes scenes of rural and small-town life, migrant labor, the effects of the Great Depression, and mobilization for World War II. Part of the American Memory series from Library of Congress.
- America's First Look into
the Camera http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/daghtml/daghome.html
Subtitled Daguerreotype Portraits and Views, 1839 - 1864, this site is a searchable and browsable collection of more than 650 photographs taken between 1839 and 1864. The majority are portraits taken by the Mathew Brady studio. There are also photographic views of buildings and monuments in the Washington-Baltimore area and street scenes in Philadelphia. Part of American Memory from the Library of Congress.
- American Landscape and Architectural Design, 1850-1920
This searchable or browsable "collection of approximately 2800 lantern slides represents an historical view of American buildings and landscapes built during the period 1850-1920." It includes the work of Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of New York's Central Park. It also contains "views of cities, specific buildings, parks, estates and gardens, including a complete history of Boston's Park System." There are images of plans, maps, and models. From the Library of Congress' American Memory Project.
- By the People, For the
Subtitled Posters from the WPA, 1936-1943, this searchable site contains over 900 posters from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. Search by keyword or browse by subject or creator. Full descriptive information is provided. Created in silk-screen, lithograph, and woodcut mediums, they were "designed to publicize health and safety programs; cultural programs including art exhibitions, theatrical, and musical performances; travel and tourism; educational programs; and community activities in seventeen states and the District of Columbia." From the Library of Congress' American Memory Project.
- Internet Movie Database http://us.imdb.com/
The most comprehensive movie database on or off the Internet. It covers over 250,000 movies, video, TV movies and TV shows, 500,000 actors, and 50,000 directors. Information includes filmographies for all professions in the industry; plot summaries; character names; movie ratings; running times; trivia; quotes etc..
You can find a list of historical movies by using Browse--Facts & Trivia--Titles by year
3) Oral History
- Link Library (of
personal experience pages) http://www.justpublications.org/linklib/index.cgi
An archive of primary source materials. Includes first-hand information as well as oral history resources and art projects based on people's experiences.
History Online! - http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/BANC/ROHO/ohonline/#collections
These are the topics and some of the interviewees: Suffragists (Alice Paul), Disabled Persons Independence Movement (Hale Zukas); Health Care, Science, and Technology (Barbara Honeyman Heath Roll); University History Series (Arleigh Williams); University of California Black Alumni Series (Lionel Wilson); and the Earl Warren Oral History Project (Edmund G. Brown, Sr.). The searchable transcriptions are from the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.
4) Biographical Resources
- Lives, the
Biography Resource - http://amillionlives.com/
Extensive, annotated directory of links to sites that focus on the lives of individuals or groups of people, worthwhile collections of links to other biographical resources, primary biographical source material such as images, diaries, memoirs, correspondence, interviews, oral histories, etc., and good biographical dictionaries. There are special pages featuring African Americans, Women, U.S. Civil War, Holocaust Survivors and Rescuers, and Canadians. In addition there are indexes by collections, professions, eras, regions, and criticism, as well as by individual.
5) Public Records / Government Documents
- Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of
the United States
This guide is based on a paper version with the same title compiled by Robert B. Matchette et al in 1995. This version incorporates descriptive information about federal records acquired by the National Archives after the 1995 paper edition went to press, and it is regularly updated to reflect new acquisitions of federal records.
- National Archives and Records Administration
Find holdings by federal government organization, media, location, and topics.
- United States Historical Census Data
The data presented here describe the people and the economy of the US for each state and county from 1790 to 1960.
- Supreme Court
Decisions on Lexis/Nexis
From the Library Web's Database page, select Lexis / Nexis.
Full text opinions of all Supreme Court cases since 1790. In addition, all dispositions of cases that were appealed to the Supreme Court are included.
- Historic American Sheet Music Project
Digitized images of over 3000 pieces of American sheet music from 1850 to 1920 are presented, along with their full-color cover art and advertisements, in this searchable index. Search for specific criteria such as subject or date, or browse by cover. From The Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University.