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American Studies 405: Primary Sources Search Strategies

Critical Indigenous Theory
Professor: Eli Nelson
Spring 2019

Finding Primary Sources

When looking for primary sources, you need to consider:

  • Who would create the documents? Who would preserve the documents?
    • Who can be individuals or groups, such as local, regional, or international organizations, associations, and governmental agencies.
  • How would the documents be preserved and accessed? Would they have been
    • Formally published/produced, such as books, newspapers, magazines, films, music, court cases, etc.? You are likely to find these items in library databases.
    • Informally published/produced web documents, such as press releases, reports, policy statements, etc.? You may find recent documents through Google or the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine (going back to 1996). 
    • Personal or internal documents? If these materials were preserved, they may only be available through visiting private collections, library archives, museums, historical sites, or corporate/organization archives. A national library, public library, historical society, or university/college library may have digitized some of these materials. Interviews and oral histories produced as part of a scholarly research project are often only available from the researcher.

Strategies for Finding Digitized Archival Collections

Search Google

  • Enter keywords for your topic, event, or person
  • Add search terms such as "archives," "digital," or "digitized"
  • Also try search terms related to the type of primary source you would like to find, such as "oral history,"  "transcript," "speech," etc.

Be sure to evaluate the sites you find, particularly who created the site in order to determine biases and what information might be included/excluded.

Search Williams WorldCat

Some libraries catalog their digitized archival collections in Williams​ WorldCat.

  • Search for your topic, event, or person
  • Look at the Format facet on the left, and choose "downloadable archival material," "computer file," "continually updated resource," or "website" 

Note: some items will not be freely available or may just be collection finding aids.

Using Primary Source Subjects in Library Catalogs

Library catalog records have at least one Subject describing the general topic of the book, video, or other material. Subjects can be subdivided to indicate further topical breakdown, geographical location, time period, or the form of the composition. Some of the form subdivisions that indicate the items is a primary source include:

  • personal narratives
  • diaries
  • correspondence
  • interviews
  • sources
  • description and travel
  • biography (includes autobiography and biography)
  • pictorial works

Search library catalogs using these words as Subjects combined with keywords related to your topic.

Additionally, search for your topic and limit the results by publication date to find sources written during a particular time period.

Using Bibliographies

In addition to looking at footnotes and bibliographies in secondary sources, also consult book-length bibliographies. These reference sources are compiled by experts and often include annotations indicating the content and value of the works cited.

Do an Advanced search in the library catalog or Williams WorldCat:

  • Enter "bibliography" as a Subject
  • Add "Indians of North America" as a Subject (or name of specific group)



Using Library Research Guides

Given the wide variety of topics students can research in this course, this research guide cannot be comprehensive in linking to all relevant primary sources. However, you can take advantage of research guides created by librarians at other institutions that may focus on Native American and indigenous communities in a specific location or during a specific time period.

In a Google search:

  • Enter broad keywords for your research topic
  • Add search terms such as "library research guide" or "research guide"
  • Add search term "primary sources" or specific types of primary sources

Word of caution: Library research guides tend to be created with their local community in mind. Thus, they may refer to subscription databases Williams does not have or describe print items in their special collections that are not available digitally.