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*Primary Sources: A Guide

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

Source, Corroborate, Contextualize

How you read and interpret a primary source varies by the type of source under examination. Remember to ask critical questions of every source you read, considering the author and intended audience, the context in which is was written or created, and seek corroborating evidence rather than rely on a single source or point of view.

Use the menu on the left to explore some of the different types of primary sources historians use to investigate the past. Each source type include tips for how to read them critically, how to find them in libraries and archives, with a few links to examples of each type.

  • Personal & Family Papers
  • Organizational Records
  • Newspapers & Published Media
  • Audio & Visual Materials
  • Government Documents
  • Scientific Works

On the Shelves, In the Catalog

In addition to manuscript archives and digitized collections, primary sources can also be found in book form, published as collected documents or as appendices in a secondary source.  When searching the catalog for books, keep an eye out for published primary sources in the stacks.

In combination with a subject term or keyword on your topic, the following search terms can help you focus in on primary sources in the catalog:

"Personal narratives" - used to designate memoirs or autobiographical accounts of a war or event.

"Diaries" - a less commonly used catalog term, but still valuable.

"Correspondence" - used to describe personal letters or the collected correspondence of an individual or class of persons (e.g. soldiers).

"Interviews" - often used to describe oral histories in print, audio, and video formats.

"Sources" or "Archives" - describes collected documents of all kinds.

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