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ENVI 229: Environmental History: Primary Sources

Environmental History
Professor: Laura Martin
Fall 2023

What are Primary sources

Primary sources are first-hand accounts by participants of a particular event or materials produced at the same historical time period. Secondary sources are books and articles written by scholars investigating a research topic using primary sources.

If you were examining racism in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica , the article in the encyclopedia on the "Negro" would be a primary source. However, an article in the American Historical Review analyzing racism in the Britannica would be a secondary source . (Richard Marius, A Short Guide to Writing About History , pp. 14-15.)

Some examples of primary sources include:

    • Memoirs, speeches, writings, correspondence
    • Papers of a political party, agency, or association
    • Official documents such as congressional hearings and reports
    • Contemporary magazine and newspaper articles
    • Contemporary art works, films, literature and music
    • Contemporary artifacts, such as buildings and monuments

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.