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National History Day Resources at University of Missouri Libraries

Guide for educators and students participating in National History Day projects.

What is a Primary Source?

A primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event. Some types of primary sources include:
  • ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS (excerpts or translations acceptable): Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records 
  • CREATIVE WORKS: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art 
  • RELICS OR ARTIFACTS: Pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings

From "What is a Primary Source?"

Using Finding Aids

A finding aid is a document with detailed information about a collection and a list of materials by folder or box.  A finding aid can tell you whether a collection is relevant to your research.  You'll encounter finding aids when you are using collections of materials such as unpublished papers or archives.  Collections with finding aids are indicated in the MERLIN catalog with an icon that looks like this:


You can find out more about these collections by accessing their finding aids from the link on the MERLIN record, or directly from the Collections A-Z page on the Special Collections web site.

You may encounter finding aids with the following sections in your research:

  • Scope and Contents Note: This note tells you what types of materials the collection contains and the time period it covers.
  • Biographical Note: Information about the creator of the collection, either a person or an organization.
  • Conditions of Use: Any restrictions on use or copying are noted here.  
  • Series or Arrangement: This tells you how the collection is organized.  Some collections are organized by format or type of material; others are kept in the creator's original filing system.
  • Inventory: A detailed description of the content of each folder and box in the collection.  Some collections have individual items listed, but most have descriptions only down to the folder level.

You can request items from a finding aid by asking the librarian for a specific box and folder number, but feel free to ask for help at any time!

Adapted from "How to Read a Finding Aid," Primary Sources in Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries.

Resources on Using Archives

How to Search Special Collections in the Library Catalog

Did you know the MERLIN library catalog will let you limit your search to Special Collections?  Here's how to do it.

Get set up to search

Starting from the main the UM LIBRARIES CATALOG screen, click on the Advanced tab.

Advanced search tab

On the Advanced Search page, enter your keywords at the top.  You can use the dropdown menu to search within Author, Title, or Subject (Table of Contents and Notes are not advised for Special Collections materials).  Or you can leave it open to search all available fields.

Keyword search

Limit your results

Scroll down to Add Limits.  Under Specific Library Location, choose MU Ellis Special Coll.

Limit to Special Collections

You can use additional limits such as language or year of publication.  Because Special Collections holdings include lots of microfilms, it's useful to limit by Material Type

Limit by material type

Hold down the CTRL key to make multiple selections.  Some useful limits include:

  • Looking for books, pamphlets, journals, etc.?  Limit to Books and Journals/Newspapers.
  • Posters - limit to Images
  • Maps - limit to Maps
  • Microfilm, microfiche, etc - limit to Microforms

A Note about Search Terms

When searching materials in Special Collections, it sometimes helps to use terms that we consider out of date.  For instance, you may find early works on mental illness by searching keywords like lunatic and lunacy.  Or if you're looking for works by or about women, it may be helpful to search for lady or ladies.  

Use wild cards and Boolean operators to search for several forms of a word at once.  More search tips.

You can easily refine an existing search.  Click on the Modify Search button at the top of the results screen.

Modify search

Put your additional search terms into the second box (and possibly the third, if you have more than one).

Refine search

More Historical Research Strategies