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*Primary Sources: A Guide

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

Working with Personal & Family papers

Personal or family papers are the collected letters, diaries, legal or financial documents, photographs, and other materials that an individual our household may have saved over the years and eventually found their way into an archives. The papers of famous people may even be published in books or online. These are rich sources for historians, but also require close attention when reading and interpreting since these papers may include many different types of documents.

Some materials were only intended to be read by one or two people, as in a diary or a private letter. Others are official, public documents, like the deed to property or a marriage license. Ask yourself some of the following questions when analyzing personal papers:

  • Was there an intended audience? What relationship did that audience have to the writer?
  • Is the writer being more honest in private writing than she would be in public?
  • What does the writer think important enough to mention or describe in the documents?

Photographs and other images require special consideration. Who is in the frame? Who took the picture? Is it a candid shot of daily life or a composed portrait?

Personal and family papers may also include ephemera, items meant to be used for only a short time--football tickets, theater performance program, greeting cards, or name tags. These can be valuable glimpses into daily life, social events, and what the collector valued as sentimental or worth keeping for posterity.

Examples of Personal Papers

When personal papers are published in book form, they often include one of the following terms in the library catalog. Search for a personal name combined with one of these to search for these types of documents:

  • Personal narratives
  • Diaries
  • Correspondence

Plantation Records

The records of southern plantations often present the historian with a mix of personal and business documents as the letters of family members intersect with the operations of the plantation.

Travel Writing

A special type of personal writing is the travel narrative. Often intended for publication, travelers documented their successes and tribulations while abroad, often describing what they perceived as strange and exotic cultures and environments. Because travel narratives reflect the biases and perspectives of the writer--and should not be considered objective or neutral accounts--historians can use these sources to explore the perceptions and prejudices of the writer and intended audience in addition to gleaning some details of daily life and culture that the writer thought worthy of note.

The following databases may include travel journals and digital copies of published travel narratives.

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