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History 217: Primary Sources

Early Modern Japan
Professor: Eiko Maruko Siniawer
Fall 2019

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

Finding Primary Sources in Library Catalogs

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 form subdivisions that indicate the items is a primary source include:

Sources: collections of contemporary writings

Description and Travel: Travellers' accounts

Art, Literature

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.

Databases and Digital Projects

Travel Accounts