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HIS205: Topics in Women's History

What is a primary source?

Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation.

They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented.

From: "Primary sources at Yale"

 

What kinds of thing can be primary sources?

Think about what kinds of primary sources might be related to your topic:

letters

interviews

diaries

memoirs

newspapers

reports

government documents

institutional records

pamphlets

maps

film

photographs

Nowadays even your ipod, blog or facebook can be primary sources, because they reflect the reality of the times, and of your life.

Three ways to find primary sources:

1. Start with what you already have: to uncover references to primary sources.

2. Use the library catalogue to find books and other materials.

3.  Use reliable online text collections.

Start with what you already have

The following may refer you to good primary sources on your topic. 

  • class notes
  • course readings
  • bibliographies of your textbook, journal articles, or other secondary sources
  • historical encyclopedias

They can also help you identify relevant historical figures, authors, or keywords for searching library databases

Find books and other primary sources in the library catalogue

Combine  two kinds of keywords to find primary sources in the library catalogue: keywords for your topic & keywords for different kinds of primary source.

Examples:

reformation sources

world war 1914 correspondence

national socialism documents

Primary source keywords:

documents    sources
texts correspondence
diaries pamphlets
personal narratives interviews

How to recognize and choose useful primary sources in the library catalogue

If you are having trouble recognizing whether a book in the catalogue is a good primary source collection, ask yourself the following:

  • do the title or subect headings include words like documents, sources, or other words indicating primary sources?
  • is the book a substantial length?
  • is the publisher scholarly and reliable, for example, a university press?
  • is the book reasonably current?
  • is the book in a language you can read?

Example:

 catalogue record for "Witchcraft in Europe"

Title: "documentary history"

Subject Headings: Witchcraft--Europe--History--Sources

Page Length: 451 pages

Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press

Publication date: 2001

Language: English