What are primary sources?
Many history professors assign research papers or projects which require students to examine primary sources. In such cases, it is not enough to gather relevant books and journal articles (secondary sources); instead, you must go further and find primary sources to inform your research.
The UCLA Institute on Primary Sources gathered a number of definitions for primary sources, and its website provides a useful overview of the topic. Primary sources may be defined as "evidence left behind by participants and observers," which "enable the researcher to get as close as possible to the truth of what actually happened during an historical event or time period." The website also provides a helpful list of examples:
- diaries, journals, speeches, interviews, letters, memos, manuscripts and other papers in which individuals describe events in which they were participants or observers;
- memoirs and autobiographies;
- records of organizations and agencies of government;
- published materials written at the time of the event;
- photographs, audio recordings, moving pictures, video recordings documenting what happened;
- artifacts of all kinds....
Searching the library catalog
The Criss Library catalog is a database which contains records describing the books, government documents, videos, music scores, CDs, and other materials owned by the library. There are tens of thousands of items in the library which may be used as primary sources for historical research, and the catalog can help you identify them. Stay alert to clues which indicate that an item contains primary sources; for example, click on the following titles to see catalog records:
- Cobbett’s Complete Collection of State Trials, and Proceedings for High Treason and other Crimes and Misdemeanors from the Earliest Period  to the Present Time ….
Each of these books, or sets of books, presents copies or transcriptions of primary sources. They typically include explanatory material to help the reader understand them, and the notes often provide leads to finding additional material.
If your research involves a particular person, search that person's name as an author to see if the library owns books containing that person's work. Note above, for example, the Papers of Alexander Hamilton.
Historians who compile a collection of primary sources often use the phrase documentary history in the title. You may click here to retrieve a list of books which follow this convention.
The library of the University of California, Berkeley, has developed a search strategies guide which offers many more suggestions like these, and you may review it by clicking here.
I recommend that students prospect and browse for primary sources before they settle on a paper topic. Matching your interest to the available primary sources can make research easier, especially when time is a concern given competing demands from other classes.
You may identify books or other publications not available at Criss Library. If so, the library's Interlibrary Loan service can often borrow or obtain a copy from another library. You will need to set up an Interlibrary Loan account the first time you submit a request. Books typically take five days to a week to arrive; scanned copies of journal and magazine articles often arrive in two to four days. Interlibrary Loan may also be able to borrow reels of microfilm. Some items are difficult to find and require weeks to obtain, so submit Interlibrary Loan requests as soon as possible.