|Students and researchers now have greater access to primary source materials for historical research than ever before. Users of primary sources have always needed to examine their sources critically, but now with the proliferation of electronic resources from a wide variety of web site producers, evaluation is more important than ever before. Users of web resources must now consider the authenticity of documents as well as what person or organization is the internet provider.|
What are primary sources?
|Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories. Primary sources may include:
Finding Primary Resources: Databases which contain primary source materials
Hint: Search using keywords then narrow your results to source type:"primary source"
Finding Primary Resources: On the Web
1. Consult major collections of primary sourcesEvaluating Primary Source Web Sites
The following reputable sites link to thousands of primary sources.
- Avalon Project Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy
- EuroDocs Western European Primary Historical Documents
- American Memory (Library of Congress) - A gateway to the Library of Congress’s collection of digitized American historical materials. It offers primary source and archival materials (photographs, manuscripts, motion pictures, and sound recordings) on U.S. history.
- Making of America 19th century books and magazines
- American Heritage Magazine Archive 1954 to current (online) also available via the databases listed above
- National Archives: Docs Teach - American primary sources by historical era
2.Browse a subject directory linking to primary sources
Subject directories are useful when you are interested in seeing a broad variety of sources on your topic. Some subject directories include annotations and evaluations of sites. Useful subject directories for history include:
3. Use a search engine
- U.S. History: Primary Sources: National History Day
- World History Primary Sources: National History Day
- Digital History Primary Sources University of Houston
Search engines are useful when you are researching a narrow topic or trying to locate a specific document. When searching, use specific terms rather than broad terms. For example search for the “emancipation proclamation” not just “slavery,” search for the “battle of chancellorsville” not “civil war.” 4. Finding photographs and other non-text sources
Going to a major collection of photographs is the best way to find a historic image. Also, use a search engine to try a topic search, such “Eiffel Tower” or “Chingis Khan” or “Van Gogh and wheat fields” to find photos, drawings or reproductions of paintings. Some major collections include:
- American Memory Library of Congress - A gateway to the Library of Congress’s collection of digitized American historical materials. It offers primary source and archival materials (photographs, manuscripts, motion pictures, and sound recordings) on U.S. history.
- Life Magazine Archives 1936 to 1972 (via Google Books) - hint: use "search all issues" (upper left corner of webpage)
- New York Public Library Digital Library Collection
- Heritage Image Partnership (UK)
|Before relying on the information provided by a website, examine and understand the purpose of the website. While the purpose might not affect the accuracy of the primary source material it contains, it might indicate that the material has been altered or manipulated in some way to change or influence its meaning. Sometimes sites use primary source material to persuade the reader to a particular point of view, distorting the contents in obvious or subtle ways. Also, sites can use primary source material haphazardly, without appropriately choosing, inspecting, or citing the work.
In general, look for websites with a non-biased, balanced approach to presenting sources. Websites produced by educational or governmental institution often are more reliable than personal websites, but government sites may be subject to propaganda.
Adapted from the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) of the American Library Association.
updated by Lisa Wright- March 19, 2015