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*Primary Sources: A Guide

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

Working with Government Documents

A governing institution both collects and generates information in order to function. For historians, government documents may be one of the only option for studying people and events that didn't leave behind their own records. Government-created documents can also be challenging given the very specific ways in which they described or affected the lives of the people they record.

When considering how to use government documents, consider the following?

  • Who wrote this?
  • Does the government purpose for creating this document change how we think about its subject? (e.g. judicial records assume a crime or transgression)
  • Was this document created for the public, or was it only meant to be used privately by an individual or office?
  • Whose perspective is missing from this publication?

Collections of Government Documents

Every country has its own rules and guidelines for making government documents available to the public, either online or in local archives and libraries. When searching for government documents, consider:

  • Have other historians identified them in citations and bibliographies?
  • Are they published in print or online?
    • If in print, are they at FSU, or can I request them via InterLibrary Loan?
  • What language(s) will I need to read the documents?

Statistics

Historical statistics are a special type of government document. They provide demographic, economic, and other numerical data collected by state agents. Statistics also reveal what these historical actors thought was important to collect and know about their populations, and what categories they used to organize people and knowledge.

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