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Beginning Your Research in History (Fall 2020): Primary Sources

A guide to beginning your research in history using only electronic resources, with physical material access shut down in 2020.

Pro Tip: Think Critically About Primary Sources

You might be wondering: Why are some types of materials and some perspectives harder to find than others?

Several factors converge to make certain types of materials and perspectives harder to locate in libraries and archives. In particular, items of popular culture and ephemera (by definition items and materials not designed to have a long life) can be difficult to locate. The voices of the marginalized, those from minority communities, and those in oppressed positions or not in power can be hard, if not seemingly impossible, to locate.

That's because those in power make, keep, and organize records, and they have the infrastructure for doing so and for maintaining materials over time. Those in more vulnerable positions may not have the resources, luxury of time, safety, or education necessary to create resources documenting their experiences. And even if they do, there may not be infrastructures necessary to maintain and preserve the materials, and those in power may specifically work against the preservation and access of the materials. In addition, the collections in libraries and archives represent the contexts and biases of their creators and their moments of creation.

Don't let these realities stop you from pursuing the histories of those historically oppressed, marginalized, and silenced. If you need help locating primary sources that document the identities, perspectives, and experiences of the histories you aspire to tell, contact me, and we'll discuss strategies and resources.

What are Primary Sources?

A primary source is any item that provides a firsthand account or direct evidence about a topic. A primary source is often created in the time/moment of the events or actions that it documents, but certain types of primary sources--including autobiographies and oral histories--may date to many years or even decades later. Some types of primary sources include artwork and handicrafts, correspondence, diaries, government records, photographs, handbills and broadsides, magazines, newspapers, objects/artifacts, and oral histories.

Want to know more about primary sources? Check out Yale University's website on primary sources, including what they are, how they relate to other types of sources (such as secondary sources), and how to find them.

Primary Source Collections Online

The University Libraries provide access to nearly 100 databases of primary sources. A sampling of the databases relevant to history are listed below. If you're not finding what you need through the curated list below or the complete list, contact a librarian, and we'll help you find an online primary source collection better suited to your needs.

Subject Guide

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Liz Lorang
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