SubjectsPlus: Finding Primary Sources

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Distinguishing Primary from Secondary Sources
Primary sources
  • a first-hand account by a participant or observer close to the time of the event, as reported in an article, diary, journal, speech, interview, letter, e-mail, memorandum, or autobiography.
  • an original work of art or literature
  • visual images and/or audio recordings of an event
  • old maps
  • original research or raw data, including public opinion polls
  • a government document that is produced in the normal course of governing (a law, congressional hearing, treaty, regulation or court decision) and those that record an event (birth certificate), report data collected by the government (the census), or confer a right (a permit, license or patent).
  • records produced by organizations in the normal course of doing business
  • a laboratory report or field observation, including an ethnography
  • artifacts of any kind
Secondary Sources
  • an analytical article or book about an event, including textbooks and encyclopedias
  • an editorial
  • a biography
  • a documentary or reenactment
  • reviews or literary criticism
  • an article that describes or analyzes a third parties' research results
  • a government report that analyzes events after-the-fact, relying on evidence collected or documents generated at the time of the event.  For example: United States.  National Aeronautics and Space Administration Office of Policy and Plans.  Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident.  1986.
  • a law review article or treatise on the law
  • an interest group report criticizing the government's statistical analysis of census data
  • a report examining the commercial viability of a particular enterprise by a consultant
  • an article describing and analyzing the results of a third parties' work.
General Tips for Finding Primary Resources
  • Have a good understanding of the topic - read and absorb information in encyclopedias and secondary sources. You need to know more about when an event happened, the duration of the event, where it happened and what players might have been involved.
  • Good scholarly secondary sources will often list primary sources in the bibliography or in footnotes. Follow up on these leads.
  • Identify persons involved with the topic (government officials, eye-witnesses, writers of the time period). Biographical databases such as American National Biography and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography are great places to look for key British and American people and each entry lists additional sources.
  • Use the names of key people or organizations in author searches within our online catalog or in  Worldcat to find papers, letters, memoirs, autobiographies etc. These works will often contain information about the location of manuscript collections or the location of a specific manuscript. . Also search the position that key eye wittnesses may have held, e.g. United States President, Ambassadors, Missionaries etc.
  • Identify materials written at the time of your event by using date limits in catalogs and indexes.
  • The presence of the word "sources" in a subject heading always indicates a primary sources or reprints of primary sources. For example, "Great Britain -- Colonies -- History -- Sources"
  • Limit a search by date. For example search "fugitive slaves " in ENCORE and refine your search by date using the menu on the left hand side of the screen. In the classic catalog search "China" as a subject heading and then click the limit/sort search button at the top of the screen. In year of publication indicate before 1900. If you limit by date, be aware that you may miss modern reprints of older materials.
  • Limit a search to the location of "Case Special Collections."  Most likely you will be searching for an author, but this will also work for Exact Subject or Subject Key word searches.   Examine the records to determine if manuscripts are part of the collection you have discovered.
  • Survey the following ranges in the Reference Collection---CD 995-- CD 3447 and Z 723-- to see if there are any books that might help.  These ranges contain catalogs of various types---regional, subject, time period, specific libraries.  Many describe European collections of manuscripts.  Of particular local interest is the set entitled Guide to Historical Resources in ... .  Each volume describes collections in repositories within a county in New York State. (Call number CD 3407...).
Databases of Primary Source Material
Finding articles in Popular U.S. Magazines
US Government Documents
Refer to the Government websites guide created by the Head of Government Documents
Historical Maps
David Rumsey Historical Map Collection Unrestricted Access
The historical map collection has over 34,000 maps and images online. The collection focuses on rare 18th and 19th century North American and South American maps and other cartographic materials. Historic maps of the World, Europe, Asia, and Africa are also represented.

Historical Maps Online Unrestricted Access
Collaborative effort between the University of Illinois Library and the University of Illinois Press, the online material includes hundreds of digitized maps, which may be examined in minute detail with an effective zoom feature. Designed to chart "400 years of historical development in Illinois & the Northwest Territory", many other geographic areas are represented. Browse or search.

other virtual maps
Further reading
For some interesting ideas about reading and understanding primary sources see:
"Reading primary sources : the interpretation of texts from nineteenth- and twentieth-century history" / edited by Miriam Dobson and Benjamin Ziemann. London ; New York : Routledge, 2009. CASE Main D16 .R23 2009

Last updated: July 28, 2010
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