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Navigating Library Research: Unit 9: Primary Sources

Quiz: Primary Sources

Please download the following quiz, complete it, and submit it directly to your professor.

Knowing What You Want

Primary sources come in such crazy variety that it can be hard to even know what you're looking for. For most time periods and cultures throughout the past several centuries, you can find diaries, letters, and perhaps books or newspaper articles written by people who were there. However, you may want to look even deeper and see if you can find artifacts and other materials from the time and place.

Finding primary sources is often not quite as easy as finding a regular book. You can't just assume that your local library will have, for example, authentic art by 19th-century Navajo women. You'll have to do a little more planning and exploration. Libraries, archives, and museums are good places to start your search for primary sources. Even if you don't find what you want, staff at these institutions can help point you in the right direction.

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are materials that give first-hand accounts or information on a topic. They were written by someone who was there when the event they describe took place. Researchers often use primary sources while doing historical or cultural research. For example, if you were researching the Gold Rush at Pike's Peak, you could read a miner's journal or look at photographs of miners and their families. However a book that a professor wrote about Gold Rush history would be considered a secondary source.

Some examples of primary source formats include:

  • archives and manuscript material
  • photographs, audio, video, films
  • journals, letters and diaries
  • speeches
  • scrapbooks
  • published books, newspapers and magazine clippings published at the time
  • government publications
  • oral histories
  • records of organizations
  • autobiographies and memoirs
  • printed ephemera
  • artifacts, e.g. clothing, costumes, furniture
  • research data, e.g. public opinion polls

List compiled by the University of California Irvine Libraries for their Primary Sources Tutorial.

Ways to Use Primary Sources

Primary sources can be great subjects for your own original research. For example, you could read a pioneer woman's memoir and determine her attitudes toward the dangers of prairie life.

You can also use quotes or excerpts from primary sources to make your research more interesting and personal, even if you're mainly using secondary sources for your research.

Primary Sources in the Sciences

If you're taking a science course, your professor may ask you to do research using primary sources. This often confuses students, because primary sources in the sciences are different from primary sources in history.

Scientists often write articles about their own original research. Because these articles describe what they saw or experienced, they are primary sources. However, articles that discuss other scientists' work are secondary sources.

Searching the Library Catalog

The Auraria Library's catalog will let you search for primary source materials. It will find items both in the library and freely available online. To do this:

  • Start at the search box on the library's home page. Enter some keywords (for example, "revolutionary war") and press Search.
  • Go to the Content Types menu on the left side of the page. Click "More."

content type filter

  • When the list expands, choose the types of primary source materials you're interested in. For example, you might choose Archival Materials, Pamphlets, and Photographs.

content type filter

  • The record for each item will explain how to get it. Some will be available online.

You have other options for finding primary sources at many academic and large public libraries, too. Here are a few suggestions for searching through library catalogs. Try asking a librarian for help, too!

  • When you're searching, limit publication dates close to the event you're researching. If you're researching World War II history, materials published between 1939 and 1945 are much more likely to be primary materials than something published recently. Remember that dates don't necessarily tell you what's a primary source and what isn't.
  • Are you interested in a particular person who lived during your time period? Try doing an author search for that person. You may find a memoir, book of letters, or other primary source by that person.
  • Government publications relating to an event or issue can shed interesting light on an event. Try searching for the name of a relevant government agency along with keywords related to your event. For example, "Department of Defense and Iraq" (no quotes necessary).
  • Twentieth- and twenty-first century events are quite often recorded on video. Try searching for keywords plus "video," (ex.: civil rights and video). Often, video is re-released long after an event, so a 2007 video about the Civil Rights movement may have original footage. Just make sure the video was taken at the time the event occurred (reenactments aren't primary sources).

Searching in Databases

Some library databases contain primary sources. Look through the list of Auraria Library's history databases, and find some that list letters, diaries, or other primary sources in their descriptions.

Some newspapers are also available electronically dating back to the nineteenth century. Look at the list of Auraria Library's news and newspapers databases, and see which ones cover your location and time period. Colorado's Historic Newspaper Collection covers Colorado history from 1859 through 1923. You may also want to search for articles about national or international news on the New York Times' Web site. You'll have to make a free account to search. Articles from 1981 to the present are available for free. If you want an older article, you can request it by Interlibrary Loan.

Archives and Museums

You'll be amazed at the artifacts you can find in collections held at museums and archives. Staff there can often also provide interesting ideas for furthering your research. Here are a few places you can easily visit:

  • Auraria Library's Archives and Special Collections department is located on the library's second floor. It collects information and artifacts related to Colorado history, and especially to the Auraria campus. Also visit its Web page to see more detailed online research guides and lists of other local collections.
  • The main branch of the Denver Public Library has an impressive collection of materials on local, Native American, and Rocky Mountain history. Have a look at the Western History and Genealogy Collection online, or stop in for a visit.
  • The Colorado Historical Society's museum in downtown Denver has an extensive collection of artifacts and displays covering thousands of years of Colorado history.
  • The Library of Congress's American Memory Project is an online archive of Americana. Visit its Web site to see many items that you can use as primary sources.