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HIST-400 Capstone Research Experience: Primary Sources

HIST-400 This course will build on the fundamental historical skills explored in HIST 205. Emphasis will be placed on choosing a strong research topic, developing a research plan, and exploring preliminary arguments that will lay the groundwork for furthe

Primary Sources

When thinking about how to find or make sense of primary sources, you should ask yourself three questions:

  1. When and where was it created?
  2. Who created it?
  3. For what purpose or audience was it produced?

Depending on the topic and time period that you are studying, you’ll have to look for different kinds of primary sources. For example, if you are interested in the issue of birth control in 20th century America, you can expect to find many primary sources, including:

  • court cases
  • legislative documents
  • newspaper articles
  • and letters

If you are interested in a topic from a more distant historical time period, such as the status of Jews during the Renaissance, you may have to look harder, but you can still find documents such as:

  • laws
  • novels
  • and pamphlets

If you’re interested in first-person accounts, you’ll want to take a look at sources like:

  • letters
  • diaries
  • autobiographies
  • oral histories
  • literary works
  • or polemical writings

You’ll have to determine if the source is a reliable account, or created with the intention of imposing a particular understanding of an event or situation. Were they created at the time of the events they recount, or were they written many years later? Some sources might make this point of view obvious, whereas others might pretend to be authoritative.

In other cases, you’ll want to think about what kinds of organizations might have created records related to your topic. You might be able to find:

  • statistics
  • government reports
  • legislative documents
  • court records
  • transactions of an association
  • annual reports and financial records
  • or reports of non-governmental organizations.

Again, you’ll want to determine the circumstances of the document’s creation. Was it an internal document, created to gather information, or was it intended to persuade others inside or outside the group to take a certain course of action?

Visual material can also provide a powerful window onto the time period you are studying. For instance, maps not only reveal contemporary political boundaries, but also how people thought of them. Other visual sources include:

  • photographs
  • posters
  • advertisements
  • illustrations
  • cartoons
  • travel narratives
  • and motion pictures

Keep in mind that primary sources can have multiple meanings. For example, this 1854 map provides evidence about the 1854 London cholera outbreak, but it also reflects a new understanding of how disease spreads and a concern with illness as a social problem.

(This content excerpted from the University of Illinois History, Philosophy, and Newspaper Library; "Types of Sources and Where to Find Them: Primary Sources" )

SAU databases for Primary materials

Searching for Primary Sources

Google Web Search

ADD the above search string to your topic in Google to find primary sources on the web. Feel free to mix and match your terms. 

Google Book Search

ADD the above search string to your topic in Google Books to find published collections of primary sources.  Feel free to mix and match your terms. If you find a book you like, check the SAU LiBrary Central catalog. If it is not in the Library's collection, try using Interlibrary loan!