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History 165: Primary Sources

The Age of McCarthy: American Life in the Shadow of the Cold War
Professor: Jessica Chapman
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

When looking for primary sources, you need to consider:

  • Who would create the documents? 
    • Who can be individuals or groups, such as local, regional, or international organizations, associations, and governmental agencies.
    • When reading secondary and primary sources, make a list of the names you encounter. Search these names as authors in library databases.
  • How would the documents be preserved and accessed?
    • Formally published/produced, such as books, newspaper and magazine articles, films, music, court cases, etc.
    • Informally published/produced, such as press releases, reports, policy statements, etc.
    • Personal or internal documents, such as diaries, letters, research interviews, internal memos, etc 
      • May no longer exist
      • May not be publicly available (could be in personal files only)
      • May have been deposited with a library archive, museum, historical site, or corporate/organization archive
        • Search Archive Finder or Google to determine where a person's/organizations papers are housed
        • Look for finding aids and digitized documents at the institution that holds the papers.
      • May have been collected and published

Subject Librarian

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Christine Ménard
Meet your librarian:
Sawyer Library
Research Services, Room 347D
Pronouns: she/her/hers