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Search Strategy: Primary Sources



Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred, or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories. Primary sources may include letters, manuscripts, diaries, journals, newspapers, speeches, interviews, memoirs, documents produced by government agencies such as Congress or the Office of the President, photographs, audio recordings, moving pictures or video recordings, research data, and objects or artifacts such as works of art or ancient roads, buildings, tools, and weapons. These sources serve as the raw material to interpret the past, and when they are used along with previous interpretations by historians, they provide the resources necessary for historical research.

Finding Primary Sources on the Web

1. Consult major collections of primary sources.

2. Browse a history subject directory - Subject directories are useful when you are interested in seeing a broad variety of sources on your topic. Some subject directories include annotations and evaluations of sites.

3. Use a search engine - Search engines are useful when you are researching a narrow topic or trying to locate a specific document. When searching, use specific terms rather than broad terms. For example search for the “emancipation proclamation” not just “slavery,” search for the “battle of chancellorsville” not “civil war.”

4. Get recommendations from your professor or librarian.

5. Finding photographs and other non-text sources - Going to a major collection of photographs is the best way to find a historic image. Also, use a search engine to try a topic search, such “Eiffel Tower” or “Chingis Khan” or “Van Gogh and wheat fields” to find photos, drawings or reproductions of paintings.

Evaluating Primary Source Websites

Before relying on the information provided by a website, examine and understand the purpose of the website. While the purpose may not affect the accuracy of the primary source material it contains, it might indicate that the material has been altered or manipulated to change or influence its meaning. Sometimes sites use primary source material to persuade the reader to a particular point of view, distorting the contents in obvious or subtle ways. Also, sites can use primary source material haphazardly, without appropriately choosing, inspecting, or citing the work.

Determining the origin of the document - In a website of primary sources it is important to determine where the author got the documents. The best sites clearly state the source of the original material.

  • Scanned image of a document ? The image of a scanned document usually illustrates what the original document looks like. The origin of the documents at a website can often be determined by the creator of the website. (For example, the Library of Congress website generally supplies documents from its own manuscript collections.) Sometimes, websites will present documents from other collections, or may provide links to documents at other websites.
  • Transcribed document ? Transcribed documents do not illustrate the original image of the document but only provide the content in plain text format. It is important to discover the original source of transcribed documents to determine if the transcription is complete and accurate. The source, which may be the original documents or published editions, should be cited.
  • Links to external documents ? Sites that link to external documents require you to track down the original website for the documents for evaluation purposes. A reliable website may link to a document in another not so reliable site and vice?versa.