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HS4390 - Historiography, Method and Research

Research possibilities and tools for primary, secondary, and tertiary research.

What is a primary source?

A primary source is a first hand account of an event or an object or document created by a person or in a place being researched.

Primary sources are contextual.  

For instance, a newspaper article may be primary source for one topic (an first hand account from the time being studied) OR if could be a secondary source (discussion of an event that occurred in the past). There is nothing inherent in a document that makes it a primary or secondary source. The content, not the format/container, determines if a item is a primary source for your topic.

"Primary sources are 'original' materials that provide you with the 'raw data' or evidence you will use to develop, test, and ultimately justify your hypothesis or claim. What kinds of material count as primary sources vary significantly by field. In history, primary sources are artifacts or documents that come directly from the period or event you are studying: letters, diaries, objects, maps, even clothing." (Booth, Craft of Research, 4th ed., p. 66)


Primary Sources - helpful search terms

To find primary sources on you topic, try searching you topic in combination with one of the following search terms that focus on the format.

Search Term When To Use It
sources generic term, often produces the most results
archive use with organizations, individuals and families
archival resources use with topics and geographic areas (counties, cities, etc.)
correspondence use with individuals, familes, classes of people, ethnic groups
diaries use with individuals and families
manuscripts use with individuals
notebooks, sketchbooks, etc. use with individuals
personal narratives use with names of events
personnel records use with organizations and military units
records and correspondence

use with organizations and groups

speeches, addresses, etc

use with individuals or groups


Example Search

A search in or the Library Catalog on the terms "slaves and correspondence" finds books that includes primary source material on African Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction. You can search for multiple keywords, in the Library Catalog or in Worldcat, by combining multiple terms with the word OR.  Ex: (sources OR correspondence OR diaries OR manuscripts OR narratives OR personnel records OR speeches)

WorldCat interfaces

Access to the Library Catalog from the Blume Library

Use Google Advanced Search to Locate Primary Source Collections

Google Advanced Search can be a good tool to locate online primary source collections IF you do not find ideas from the Online Primary Source page list of resources.  

Feel free to copy and paste the following into the Google Advanced search box labeled "any of these words"
repository digital archive virtual digitized primary

I recommend limiting your search to the site or domain.  For instance, edu for educational institutions or gov for government websites, or various country code for non-United States website.

You should always evaluate all sources you use. Ask yourself questions about the website: Who created it?  Why did they create it? When was it created or last updated? What is it; what do you know about it? Where does this material come from?

Video: Finding Primary Source Collections with Google Advanced Search.

Use the SIFT Method to assess a website. One idea, search for the URL you found in Wikipedia to see if you can find basic information about the website. This tip comes from the SIFT Method to assess a website.