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Primary Sources: Finding Primary Sources

Where Do Primary Sources Exist?

There are many kinds of primary sources, and therefore many places they may be found. 

  • Archives: Archives are dedicated to preserving artifacts and records of a particular time period, event, organization, or time period. Examples of Archives include:
    • Topical Archives: An institution or an individual may collect documents about a particular topic. For example, Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives collects documents and records about labor and leftwing movements in the United States, like labor union membership rolls and communist newsletters. Another archive, the Fales Library, collects documents of literary history, like first edition books and primary information about major authors https://library.nyu.edu/locations/special-collections-center/
    • National Archives: The United States has the National Archives, which preserves all the important documents and records created by the government, from the Declaration of Independence to much more recent laws: https://www.archives.gov/. Many other governments, including of other countries, of states and provinces, and local towns, also have archives.
    • Institutional Archives. For example. Touro College has archives dedicated to preserving information about Touro College's history: https://www.tourolib.org/archives. Most universities, and many other institutions, also keep similar records
    • Museums: Museums are not archives, but they are related. They generally collect certain kinds of objects. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has many paintings and statues from throughout history. In addition, they have exhibits of historical clothing and armor. All of these can be primary sources, depending on what you're looking for! https://www.metmuseum.org/
    • Archives most commonly have physical materials, and you can go to their locations to look at their documents. In these cases, archivists can help you find what you need. 
    • Many archives have at least some part of their collections available online. This is particularly helpful if a document is in an archive far away!
  • "Born-Digital" Primary Sources
    • This term, "born digital" refers to primary sources that were created online or in digital form, as opposed to first existing in physical form--things like social media, blog posts, online newspapers. Right now, these are primary sources only if you're researching fairly recent events
  • Published Primary Sources: Sometimes a book may be a primary source.
    • A published memoir or autobiography is itself a primary source. The Diary of Anne Frank and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself are both examples of primary sources.
    •  Sometimes a collection of primary sources may be published as a book. For example, an anthology of primary sources of the revolutionary war and a book that is a collection of Abraham Lincoln's speeches would both be good places to go for primary sources.
  • Other Online Sources
    • Many many primary sources are now available online, and may be found through google or another search engine! However, it's important to evaluate these very very carefully to make sure you understand the context, are getting a sufficient portion of the source (as opposed to a potentially out-of-context snippet), are using a good translation (if the original source was in another language) 

Evaluating Online Primary Sources

This section will help you evaluate websites that compile collections of primary sources, to decide whether it is reliable and whether the primary sources it provides meet your needs

WHAT is the (modern day) audience for the primary source.

  • Websites for the general public: very often, these sites will have only brief exerpts within a general summary of a historical event: http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/plague.htm
  • An educational website aimed at K-12 teachers: These often only have surface-level summaries and references to primary sources: https://edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plans/path-black-death
    • Note that in this example, the website is a government source, which is often good! But we can see that it’s set up as a lesson plan, and doesn’t actually have primary sources
    • Sometimes educational sources have very good primary sources--use your judgment; make sure it's clear which parts of the website are the primary source and which parts are the context and teaching aids
  • Websites aimed at researchers and college students: In many cases, these will be hosted on university websites (check for a .edu URL) or on the websites of actual archives. For example, this website, which collects hundreds of digitized and translated primary source documents organized by time period, region, and topic, is run by Fordham University: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/index.asp
    • Keep in mind that most scholars will go look at the original documents in person, instead of looking at online versions, and will learn other languages instead of reading translations. But for most undergraduate students, that’s not an option, so online sources are fine!

WHO is making the document available and WHERE is the document available online

  • A lot of the time, you should look for .edu or .gov URLs. It’s a good sign (but not the only sign to look for!) if the information is made available by a university or government
  • Especially if the website is not for a university, government, or similarly educational or cultural institution, is there any “about” page that will tell you who is collecting the primary source documents and how?
  • If the original document was in another language, does the website disclose who translated the source?

WHEN was the original source created

  • Just because a particular source is old doesn’t mean that it’s from the particular time period you need
  • Does the website you’re using clearly state, to the best of their knowledge, when a source was created?
    • Sometimes historians have trouble telling exactly when a particular source was from. Documents in the last few centuries are comparatively easy to date. Sources from the middle ages sometimes may only be dated to around the century of publication; ancient sources may be even harder to tell.

Let’s take another look at the primary sources website from Fordham University: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/index.asp. Why is it good? Let’s start by looking at the home page

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If we go to one of the topic pages, we see that information about each document is clearly available:

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Not all quality primary source websites will have the same format, but most of the good ones will clearly describe the source.

Using Google to Find Digital Sources

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