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*Primary Sources: A Guide

A guide to identifying and locating primary sources for conducting research in history.

What are Primary Sources?

Pepper Library Reading Room at the Claude Pepper Library.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.

For comparison, secondary sources are narratives, interpretations, and critical analyses of the past, written by historians or others and (hopefully) based on primary sources. They are created by writers who have the necessary distance in time to put past events and people into their broader historical context. Secondary sources build upon and interpret primary sources, and typically respond to and debate with the secondary sources created by others. Secondary sources also come in a variety of formats, including peer-reviewed books and journal articles, presentations at conferences, professional blog posts, or magazine articles.

Where are Primary Sources?

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.

We often associate primary sources with archives, and secondary sources with libraries, but you can find primary sources in both places. However, it's important to note that these institutions organize information and collections differently.

Archives

In archives, materials are usually organized by their origin, more specifically, by who collected them before they entered the archives.

If you donate your photographs, emails, and research notes to the FSU Special Collections & Archives, they will be kept together and likely named for you, the original collector of the materials. They will not be separated into different collections by type or topic.

Libraries

In Libraries, materials are usually organized by type and subject. Books are shelved together, but sorted by topic. Other information types are also stored together by type, like microfilms, maps, and DVDs, and may be organized by topic or alphabetically by title.

If you donate your books to a library, they will not be kept together as your collection. They will be sorted by topic and shelved accordingly.

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 first by source type, 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, this guide also offers further suggestions organized by geographic region.

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).

Secondary Sources

For secondary sources--interpretative works written by historians, usually published as books or journal articles--return to the main History Research Guide.

This guide was authored by Adam Beauchamp in 2019.
 

Except where otherwise noted, the content in this guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

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