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Primary Sources Examined

Primary Sources

  • Original materials that provide direct evidence or first-hand testimony concerning a topic or event.
  • Contemporary sources created at the time when the event occurred (e.g., letters and newspaper articles--as long as the writer is a first-hand witness) or later (e.g., memoirs and oral history interviews).
  • Primary sources may be published or unpublished.  Unpublished sources are unique materials (e.g., family papers) often referred to as archives and manuscripts.
  • Primary sources vary by discipline. How the researcher uses the source generally determines whether it is a primary source or not.

Secondary Sources

  • Works that interpret, analyze, and discuss the evidence provided by primary sources (e.g., scholarly books and articles).
  • Secondary sources are generally a second-hand account or observation at least one step removed from the event.
  • Secondary sources can be considered to be primary sources depending on the context of their use. For example, Ken Burns' documentary of the Civil War is a secondary source for Civil War researchers, but a primary source for those studying documentary filmmaking.

Tertiary Sources

  • Books or articles that synthesize or distill primary and secondary sources--for example dictionaries, encyclopedias, indexes, and textbooks.  (Sometimes these are lumped in with the secondary sources category.) 
  • Keep in mind that a secondary or tertiary source can lead you to a primary source by either referencing it, including it in a footnote or reproducing it in its entirety.  For example, at first glance, a source like “World War I: Encyclopedia” would not seem to be a primary source but if you look at the contents, volume five of this encyclopedia is entirely devoted to transcripts of documents of the war. Many subject encyclopedias like this one will turn out to be a rich source of primary source materials.

The Historian researching World War I might utilize:           

  • Primary Sources: Newspaper articles, weekly/monthly news magazines, diaries, correspondence, and diplomatic records from the time period.
  • Secondary Sources: Articles in scholarly journals analyzing the war, possibly footnoting primary documents; books analyzing the war.

The Literary Critic researching literature written during World War I might utilize:

  • Primary Sources: Novels, poems, plays, diaries, and correspondence of the time period.
  • Secondary Sources: Published articles in scholarly journals providing analysis and criticism of the literature; books analyzing the literature; formal biographies of writers from the era.

The Psychologist researching trench warfare and post-traumatic stress disorder in World War I veterans might utilize:

  • Primary Sources: Original research reports on the topic or research notes taken by a clinical psychologist working with World War I veterans.           
  • Secondary Sources: Articles in scholarly publications synthesizing results of original research; books analyzing results of original research.

The Scientist researching long term medical effects of chemical warfare on exposed veterans might utilize:      

  • Primary Sources: Published articles in scholarly journals reporting on a medical research study and its methodology.    
  • Secondary Sources: Published articles in scholarly journals analyzing results of an original research study; books doing the same.

 

Source:  David Kupas's "Finding  Primary Sources" libguide: http://pitt.libguides.com/primarysources

Each field of study has its own sources, conventions, and vocabularies.  This list will help you to identify primary sources in your own discipline. 

In general, personal correspondence and diaries or journals are considered to be primary sources by all disciplines. If you are unsure that a source is considered primary by your discipline, ask your professor or a reference librarian for assistance.

  • Archeology/Anthropology: an artifact or object that provides evidence of a society, such as clothing, farming tools, household items, and buildings.
  • Arts and Literature: the original artistic or literary work that forms the basis for a criticism or review, such as feature films, musical compositions, sound recordings, paintings, novels, plays, and poems.
  • Biology: research or lab notes, genetic evidence, plant specimens, technical reports, and other reports of original research or discoveries (e.g., conference papers and proceedings, dissertations, scholarly articles).
  • Business: market research or surveys, anything that documents a corporation's activities, such as annual reports, meeting minutes, legal documents, marketing materials, and financial records.
  • Communication: websites, blogs, broadcast recordings and transcripts, advertisements and commercials, public opinion polls, and magazines (e.g., Rolling Stone).
  • Engineering: design notes, patents, conference proceedings, technical reports, and field surveys.
  • Geography: field notes, census data, maps, satellite images, and aerial photographs.
  • History: government documents (e.g., treaty, birth certificate), photographs, store account books, artifacts (such as those listed for archeology/anthropology), maps, legal and financial documents, and census records.
  • Law: court decisions, trial transcripts, and law codes.

Source: 

David Kupas's "Finding Primary Sources" libguide: http://pitt.libguides.com/primarysources

 

Library Catalogs

  • Search FIU Catalog to find primary source materials at the FIU libraries.
  • Search WorldCat to find collections at thousands of libraries worldwide. Use the Advanced Search feature to limit by format or publication date.

Finding Aids

Use finding aids to locate processed archival collections in archives, libraries, and museums. Finding aids are increasingly available online and freely accessible.

  • Repositories of Primary Sources - An online listing of over 5,000 websites describing holdings of manuscripts, archives, rare books, historical photographs, and other primary sources.
  • ArchiveGrid - Finding aids/collection descriptions from thousands of libraries, museums, and archives. Researchers searching ArchiveGrid can learn about the many items in each of these collections, contact archives to arrange a visit to examine materials, and order copies.

Reference & Other Print Sources

Make use of the many excellent print resources that are available to find primary source materials.  These include:

  • Bibliographies
  • Film, Literature, and Periodical Indexes
  • Biographical Resources
  • Encyclopedias, Dictionaries, Handbooks
  • Secondary Sources (search the text, footnotes, and bibliographies for references to primary sources used)

Internet Search Engines

  • Use the Internet to find primary source materials by adding primary source specific terms to a Search Engine search. For example, "Civil War +soldiers + diaries."

 

Keyword/Subject Searching

Adding keywords to a catalog search will help you to locate primary source materials. For example, if you need primary sources about the French Revolution, perform a keyword search by entering the terms "france revolution correspondence"

You may also pair an appropriate heading with additional subject terms that identify materials as primary sources. Some of these terms are

  • sources
  • archives
  • correspondence
  • diaries
  • notebooks
  • personal narratives
  • speeches
  • reports
  • pictorial works
  • songs and music
  • cases
  • case study
  • facsimiles
  • memoirs
  • manuscripts
  • letters (use as keyword)
  • self-portraits
  • maps
  • fiction (written during the historical time period you are researching.)

Note: these subject terms will not retrieve all possible primary sources but they are a good way to start.

Restricting by Date of Publication or Format

  • You may also narrow a search by limiting the results by date of publication or format.
  • Limiting sources to a particular date of publication will help you to locate contemporary sources published at the time of an event. For example, if you are studying British Literature during WWII, refine your search results by using the publication date limiters to retrieve novels published only during the years 1939 to 1945.
  • To limit a search by format, go to the Advanced Search mode and select from the format list as appropriate to your needs.

Archives, Digital Collections, & Primary Source Research

Critical Assessment

OPVL is an effective tool to analyze primary and secondary source documents.

Origin

Origin is where the source comes from.

  • Who is the author/artist?
  • What date it was written/finished?
  • In which country the author/artist was born?
  • Where was the source was produced?
  • In, which format (newspaper, book, letter, etc.), was the source first presented?
  • Is the source a primary or secondary source?
  • What was the historic context in which the source was created?
  • Is there anything known about the author that is pertinent to the evaluation?

Purpose

Purpose is where you have to put yourself in the author/artist's shoes. The purpose should relate to the origin of the source.

  • What do you think the author was trying to communicate to readers?
  • What ideas/feelings was the author trying to express/evoke? What was the intent of the author?
  • Why did the author create this document?  Why does it exist?
  • Who is the intended audience of this source?
  • The purpose is especially important when it comes to pieces of propaganda as sources.

Value

Value is how valuable this source is. Basically it's linked to the amount of bias in the source:  the more bias = the less valuable (usually). Primary sources are obviously more valuable than secondary/tertiary ones.

  • What value does this source have that might not be available elsewhere?
  • What can one tell about the author/time period because of this source?
  • What was going on in history when this source was created? What new information does this piece bring to the understanding of the topic?

Limitations

Limitations is also linked to bias, each source will be at least a little biased and thus they are limited by that. Do not state bias alone as a limitation. All sources have bias.

  • Has the source has been translated from the original? (i.e., Hitler's diary entry was  translated into English by a historian and you're using the historian's book as a source)  If so, then the language difference will be another source of inaccuracy and a limitation.
  • What information was not available to the author when the source was created?
  • Did the author get the information from a reliable source?
  • Does the author have reason to emphasize certain facts over other facts?  How might the source be different if it were presented to another audience?
  • What specific information might the author has chosen to leave out?
  • Does the author concede that a certain point as is inconvenient for the author to admit?
  • How might the historical context in which the document was created influence the interpretation of the document?

The following grid can help you understand OPVL by various types of sources.

This is not ALL you need to do for an OPVL, just examples.

 

Type of Document

Origin

Purpose

Value

Limitation

Diary

Primary, by author for author, rarely published

To keep memories for later (sometimes with eye to publication)

Eyewitness to event and usually written immediately of shortly after occurred, rarely lie to oneself

Only one person’s view, there will be perspective issues, may be intended for publication therefore can even lie to oneself

Reminiscence

Primary, by author or interviewee

To offer an eyewitnesses’ perspective on an event

Eyewitness

Length of time between events and recollection can lead to loss of info, or changing of story, always perspective issues to be considered

Monograph

Usually by expert (often academic historian)

To educate colleagues, students, and the public (can be for monetary gain or promotion file)

Usually many years of primary research in archives and thorough knowledge of secondary works on topic

Always perspective issues, usually not an eyewitness, can err deliberately or accidently, not vey useful for quick overview since it will contain many pages of extraneous issues

General Text

Secondary, usually done by a panel of experts on country or topic

To educate students

Offers quick overview for student seeking easy info

Usually NOT an expert on every topic in text so there may be gaps and errors, may be too brief

Cartoon

Primary, done by artist for public at that time

To educate, entertain, and often to sell newspapers or magazines

Offer at least one person’s perspective on issue of the time, event

Don’t know how widespread it is, often exaggeration used for comic effect

Speech

Primary

For public usually

Offers official view of speaker, it is what audience hears

May not be real views of the speaker, speeches are designed to sway opinion

Internal Memo

Primary

For internal examination amongst officials of government depts.

Usually do not lie, so it is official view like a speech but private thoughts are often given too

Do not know what outsiders’ know, only what officials are saying to each other, may be fabricated

Primary Source Document: Someone who is the “first person” creates primary sources; these documents can also be called “original source documents”.  The author or creator is presenting original materials as a result of discovery or to share new information or opinions. Others have not filtered primary documents through interpretation or evaluation. In order to get a complete picture of an event or era, it is necessary to consult multiple—and often contradictory—sources.  (i.e., letters, journals, interviews, speeches, photos, paintings, etc.)

Secondary Source Documents: Materials that are produced with the benefit of hindsight and materials that filter primary sources through interpretation or evaluation. Books commenting on a historical incident in history are secondary sources. Political cartoons can be tricky because they can be considered either primary or secondary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chart created by Grossmont College Library

Archives & Primary Sources