MUS 133: Musics of the Spanish Colonial Empire, ca. 1500-1800

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Emery Shriver
Music Librarian

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What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are first-hand accounts, that serve as original evidence documenting a period, event, people, idea or work. 

Primary sources can be printed materials like books or newspapers, manuscript and archival materials like diaries and documents, artifacts, and audio/visual materials. Primary materials can be found in analog, digitized, and born-digital forms. 

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, 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.

Primary Source Collections and Search Tools

Working with Primary Sources

Primary sources are not neutral. It is important to read primary sources critically and consider the following questions: 

  • Who is the author or interviewee? What is their relationship to the event? How long ago were the events described? What was the creator's place in society?
  • What is the author writing/talking about? What are they not talking about?
  • Why is the author writing/talking about this? What is the purpose of preserving this information? Who is the intended audience?
  • If an oral history interview, who is the interviewer? How does this person's relationship (familial or societal) to the interviewee impact what is said?

Understanding the historical context of the primary sources is very important. Watch out for how your own 21st century values and views influence your interpretation of the source.

For more information on critically reading primary sources, see:

  • Rael, Patrick. "How to Read a Primary Source," Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students. (Brunswick, ME: Bowdoin College, 2004)