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Where Do I Start?

A basic guide to resources and services addressing the most frequently asked questions (FAQs) about the library.

Introduction to Primary Sources

What is a Primary Source?

primary source is a first-hand account of an event, time period, or philosophical era.

A primary source may include:

  • diaries, journals, speeches, letters, interviews, office memos and other papers if the author was present at the event being written about
  •  memoirs and autobiographies which are describing events that the author was present for
  • government documents, such as census records
  • reports and minutes of organizations that reflect events, conditions and ideas of the time
  • books, journals and newspapers written at the time of the event in question
  • photographs, audio tapes, and film that document an event
  • research data documenting scientific data at the time
  • artifacts of all kinds, which may include buildings (architecture), household items, cave drawings, clothing, paintings, pottery

Primary Sources do not include:

  • historical accounts of an event
  • memoirs or autobiographies that reflect on an event that the author was not present for, unless it reflects the popular opinion of the time
  • a critical analysis of a work of literature that was written much later than the actual work
  • documentation of ideas or psychology of a time may be found in popular fiction, films, educational material etc produced during that time period
  • a critical analysis of an historical event that was written much later

Reasons for Using Primary Sources for Research

Why should I use Primary Sources?

•  Scholarly Research should be based on fact and observation, which involves the use of primary sources.

•  They are used so that you can form your own opinion, based on the facts. They also allow you to understand how people feel, at the time, about an event or a person.

•  Primary sources are used to show your professor that you have done the research required to produce a quality paper.

•  Using primary sources shows your professor that you are able to take the facts, interpret them, and draw your own conclusion, rather than just regurgitate other people's work.

•  You should produce a better quality paper if it has some primary sources to back up your thesis statement.

•  A mixture of sources produces a more substantial paper - use primary and secondary; scholarly and popular; paper and electronicideas and artifacts; fact and fiction, etc.  

How Do I Find Primary Sources at the Library?

See this Comprehensive Guide to Primary Sources at the Library for instructions and tips on using the following resources to access primary sources: 

  • Library Catalog - for books and other published documents (e.g., letters, diaries, speeches, manuscripts, and more).
  • Library Databases - that access a multitude of primary sources online: books, newspaper articles, diaries, letters, visual art, and much more.
  • Other Online Resources - access directories to websites on African-American history, women's history, U.S. history, and more.