A primary source is a document or artifact that reflects the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer of an actual historical event. They include diaries, letters, memos, maps, images, books, and commentary published at the time of the event. These are valuable tools in verifying the validity of information on another site.
You will find searching for the phrase 'primary' will usually return an unsatisfactory result set. This is because it is actually difficult to define an item as primary--it will vary with the need of the researcher and the situation in which the item was created.Here are examples of primary and secondary items for emigration to Australia (voluntary, but some involuntary is also mentioned).
"Van Dieman's Land" from The Times, April 24, 1827, is an excerpt of a letter from a resident of Australia describing the conditions for new arrivals and would be primary source material for research on this event.
"How Did Poor People Emigrate from the British Isles to Australia in the Nineteenth Century" from Journal of British Studies, July 1993, is secondary if you are researching the actual experience. [BUT it could be considered primary if you are researching the perception of the event after a period of time, rather than the event itself.]
A well-done site that discusses finding primary sources on the web, providing examples and a selection of sites is "Using Primary Sources on the Web". This is brought to you by the members of the the American Library Association's Reference & Users Service Association/History Section. Additional information on primary sources can be found here.
A search on your topic or person in the CSUSM library catalog (or other library catalogs) can reveal a number of primary sources in our collection. Keyword searches that include the following terms will identify primary materials most of the time:
- Diar* (for diary or diaries)
- Correspondence (this is a subject heading subdivision)
- Personal narrative (this is a subject heading subdivision)
Some tips for searching a library catalog:
- Personal name searching. If the catalog uses Library of Congress subject headings, there will be a consistent version used in the subject headings, but additional notes may be added to provide access through common alternatives or nicknames.
- Subject headings will use one approved phrase for a topic, but if the subject heading has been updated (very rare), you may need to use older phrasing in your subject search. This is most likely to happen if you are using a print index rather than an electronic index.
Primary Sources Online: Tips
An increasing number of institutions (libraries, universities, museums and historical societies) are digitizing historical sources. While this may not be the same as holding the actual document in hand, it is providing access to materials that previously a researcher needed to travel to in order to access at all!
Try some of these search tips and tricks to focus your results to materials that may be of use:
- Keep in mind there are a variety of 'labels' for various events. As search engines cannot make the leap between what you type and the variations, you will find search results vary widely for an example such as World War I. It is also called the "Great War", "the war to end all wars" and WWI.
- When doing Europe-related research, spelling can make a difference! The British reverse the 'er' to 're' or insert 'u' in many words in common American English usage. Also earlier spelling varied widely, sometimes in the same document. Be sure to check the Oxford English Dictionary for possible variants.
- Not all materials will be in English (or modern English)...if you cannot read a language, that may severely limit your sources.
- Translations from other languages may not be equally reliable (even from Middle English to modern English!) Try to compare several translations and ask your professor for leads on what is considered the definitive translation/translator. Names can be translated in a number of ways, especially if translated from a non-Roman character set such as Arabic or Cyrillic.
- Government agencies have changed names and hierarchies, both in US and other governments. Check with a librarian for help on locating the history and prior name changes as there can be tools available for this. (ex. "Great Britain" is an entity now, but has not always existed, so earlier historical research will require searching for individual nations, or possibly the 'Commonwealth'.)
- To narrow your search results to primary source collections, try limiting your search (in Google) to particular domain names. Type in your topic followed by the phrase site:xxx (substitute one of the 3-character domain names given here.)
- edu limits to university servers, many of which have digitized special collections.
- org generally limits to museums, historical societies and associations.
- mil limits to US military servers (and the military are great historians).
- Nations have their own domain codes (Great Britain is uk, so you can limit to resources hosted by that country).
Samples of Primary Sources:
European History Primary Sources
http://primary-sources.eui.eu/country (listed by nation)
Avalon Project (legal documents)
Samples of specific national primary source collections:
Proceedings of the Old Bailey
Digitized Historical Parliamentary Material
British History Online
National Library of Scotland: Digital Collections
History of Ireland: Primary Documents
Gallica (National Library of France, English language access)
German History in Documents and Images
There are other tricks to try, contact your librarian for more help.
Last Update: January 23, 2013 05:24