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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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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!
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.
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: