What's a Primary Source?
A primary source is any record contemporary to an event or time period. Primary sources may be written, oral, visual or physical. Some of these sources were produced with the intent of being preserved for the future. Such intentional sources include government documents, church records, autobiographies or memoirs. On the other hand, many primary sources were produced without any intent of future use. Such unintentional sources may include private correspondence not originally meant for posterity but which later are deposited in archives and libraries. Physical evidence such as buildings, clothing, tools, and landscapes may also be labeled as unintentional sources.
--Galgano, Michael J., J. Christopher Arndt, and Raymond M. Hyser. Doing History: Research and Writing in the Digital Age. Cengage Learning, 2007, p. 57.
Paths Through Historical Sources
- Find a good secondary source (book, article), and mine its bibliography. Look for primary sources and types of primary sources used to create the secondary source.
- Use sources to find: synonyms/contemporary terms - people's names - place names - dates - distinctive quotations and phrases that will lead you to further sources via databases and Google Books.
- Use Google Books Advanced search to find key phrases such as names or dates or event names in books written during a certain period and/or with a certain word in the book title, and/or by a certain author
- In the Historical Abstracts and/or America: History and Life databases, you can search specifically for articles written about the time period you choose.
Finding Primary Sources in the MERLIN Catalog
There are certain words that appear in the subject headings of items in MERLIN that constitute primary sources. The most important of them is sources, but there are others.
In the simple keyword search box, you can put such words after SU: in order to specify the SUBJECT field.
ex.: crusades and SU:sources
In the advanced keyword search, you can put your search term(s) in the top box, and in the second box, put the word(s) you're using to locate primary sources in the next box, and change the drop-down menu to Subject:
Keywords that will help you find primary sources:
- personal narratives
Depending on the period being studied, it can also be helpful to limit your search by publication date.
More keywords identifying primary sources in Library of Congress Subject Headings
To find the papers of a historically prominent individual, use the Advanced MERLIN Search. Use the first line to specify the author (surname first, e.g., Jefferson, Thomas) and the second line to specify papers in the title. You can also use the Advanced search to combine any of the above primary source oriented keywords with a particular author.