History 319

Gender and the Family in Chinese History
Professor: Anne Reinhardt
Fall 2020

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

Research Tip: Searching Newspapers

Searching Full-text Newspapers

  • Think like a journalist. What words would they use?
  • Use the vocabulary in use at the time. (e.g., Negroes instead of African American)
  • Combine synonyms with OR to increase results. (e.g., conservatives OR right-wing)
  • Use the asterisk (*) to get multiple endings of a word. (e.g., integrat* for integrate, integration, integrating, etc.)
  • To get words closer together, use proximity operators. (See the database's help page for correct syntax.)
  • Limit your search to "abstract" or "citation and abstract" (if available) to get more precise results.

Newspapers

Translated News/Reports

Finding Primary Sources in Library Catalogs

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

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 the research guide for suggestions, and consult the bibliographies from class readings and the secondary sources you find in your research.

Search by Author

Memoirs, speeches, writings, or correspondence of a person can be found by doing an author search in library catalogs using the name (enter the last name first) of the person.  Author searches can also be used for governments, organizations, and corporations.

Search by Subject

Usually, library catalog records have at least one subject heading describing the general topic of the item. 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:

Sources: collections of contemporary documents and writings

Personal Narratives: first-person accounts, memoirs

Biography: includes biography and autobiographies

Chinese Literature

To search using subject headings in the Williams Libraries catalog, use the Browse Search or Advanced Search.

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. (note: "sources" will also bring up reference sources).

Limit Searches by Date

Primary sources were written around the same time as an event or during a particular historical time period. To find contemporary writings, you can do searches in library catalogs by subject and limit to the years in question. A word of caution: this search strategy will not find materials that were reprinted at a later date.

Strategies for Finding Digitized Primary Source 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.