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Environmental History: A Library Research Tutorial

Guide to historical research using library materials and freely available online resources.

About Primary Sources

Historians need evidence from the past to make their arguments effectively. The evidence historians use is often referred to as “primary sources.”

Primary sources are the building blocks of historical research - they are the documents or artifacts closest to the topic of investigation that you will use as evidence to support your interpretation of the past. Often they are created during the time period which is being studied (e.g. correspondence, diaries, newspapers, government documents, art), but they can also be produced later by eyewitnesses or participants (memoirs, oral histories). You may find primary sources in their original format--often in an archive--or reproduced in a variety of ways: published in books, on microfilm, or digitized in a searchable database.

Below are some tips for finding primary sources as well as some examples of online primary source collections relevant to historical landscapes.

Tips for Finding Primary Sources

Primary sources are typically organized according to who created them.

When looking for primary sources, think about who would have documented the people, places, and events that interest you, keeping in mind that those documents might be written by participants, outside observers, or even opponents of your subject matter. This guide presents possible primary source materials.  Think about the types of primary sources you may want to use, such as one person's papers (letters sent to colleagues, professional work, budgets), newspapers, or documents created by government agencies.

Our research projects might use a wide range of source types, but perhaps are limited to a particular place and time. Thus, you might also search for primary sources related to a particular geographic region or time period.

With primary sources, the possibilities are endless.

This research guide is not a comprehensive list of primary source collections that might be relevant to your topic. Historians are constantly innovating in the way they use traditional sources and finding creative ways to work with new ones.

You are not alone. Ask an expert!

Research with primary sources is a collaborative effort. Experts in your field will know how resources have been used by other historians, and can help you to think creatively about what types of sources to use. Librarians and archivists are skilled at talking through your research project and connecting you to materials in their collections and beyond. And don't forget to consult the bibliographies and citations of other historians to get ideas on what sources to use (and where to find them).

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