History 313: Finding Primary Sources

China Since 1949
Professor: Anne Reinhardt
Fall 2018

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. 

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, films, literature, and music
  • Contemporary artifacts, such as buildings and monuments

Translations of the Chinese Press

English-Language/Western Press

Finding Primary Sources in Library Catalogs

These strategies can be used in the library catalog, Williams WorldCat, and HathiTrust Digital Library.

Search by Author

Memoirs, speeches, writings, or correspondence of a person can be found by doing an author search in FRANCIS using the name (last name first) of the person.

Search by Subject

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

Personal narratives: first person accounts

Sources: collections of contemporary writings

Case Studies

Description and Travel: includes travelers' accounts

Search by Keywords

Using the Advanced Search you can combine your topic with the subdivisions mentioned above. Choose to search in the subject field to make the searches more precise.

  • subject:villages AND subject:china AND subject:"case studies"

Search by Title

To search by title, you need to have a known title in mind. Bibliographies can help identify relevant titles. See the reference sources portion of this guide for suggestions, and consult the bibliographies from class readings. 

Also, be sure to look at the footnotes and bibliographies  from secondary sources you are reading.  For example, Peter Zarrow's article "Meanings of China's Cultural Revolution: Memoirs of Exile," which was found by searching for the keywords memoirs and Cultural Revolution in Historical Abstracts, cites several memoirs and gives brief information about each author's background.