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What Are Primary Sources?
Primary sources are the raw materials of historical research - they are the documents or artifacts closest to the topic of investigation. Often they are created during the time period which is being studied (correspondence, diaries, newspapers, government documents, art) but they can also be produced later by eyewitnesses or participants (memoirs, oral histories). You may find primary sources in their original format (usually in an archive) or reproduced in a variety of ways: books, microfilm, digital, etc.
Secondary sources are interpretations of events written after an examination of primary sources and usually other secondary sources, such as books and journal articles.
When you write a research paper, you are creating a secondary source!
Searching for Digital Collections
Many libraries and organizations are making digital materials available online.
To find these collections, use a search string like this one in Google or another search engine:
digital collection library site:.edu pandemic*
You can also try the same search limiting to site:org rather than site:.edu BUT:
- .EDU = educational institution
- .ORG = organization, which can mean almost ANY kind of noncorporate organization.
If you aren't familiar with the organization, do some research on it! Who are they? What do they promote? Are they reliable?
Examples of Print Primary Sources
The Black Death by
Publication Date: 2005-02-01
A fascinating account of the phenomenon known as the Black Death, this volume offers a wealth of documentary material focused on the initial outbreak of the plague that ravaged the world in the fourteenth century. A comprehensive introduction that provides important background on the origins and spread of the plague is followed by nearly 50 documents organized into topical sections that focus on the origin and spread of the illness; the responses of medical practitioners; the societal and economic impact; religious responses; the flagellant movement and attacks on Jews provoked by the plague; and the artistic response. Each chapter has an introduction that summarizes the issues explored in the documents; headnotes to the documents provide additional background material. The book contains documents from many countries -- including Muslim and Byzantine sources -- to give students a variety of perspectives on this devastating illness and its consequences. The volume also includes illustrations, a chronology of the Black Death, questions to consider, a selected bibliography, and an index.
The Power of Subject Terms
You can use Library of Congress subject terms (see Books and Articles tabs) to help you find primary sources.
- Primary-source books and other resources in GIL/GILFind (or any library catalog) will have subject terms in their records. Those subject terms may include words that signal "primary source," such as:
(image from http://www.wordle.net/)
- Use other subject terms to help you identify other keywords/subject terms relevant to your topic.
Books Available Online
GIL-Find Library Catalog
Search for book, and check results for an electronic copy.
Full-text collection includes books in the public domain. Includes only snippets of books still under copyright unless otherwise specified by author or publisher. Also includes magazines and periodicals.
Digital copies of books whose copyrights have expired.
Center for Research Libraries Digital Collections
Wide-ranging collection of digitized resources. Search the CRL's catalog, or browse the collection.
Multi-university-library digital library.
Digital library, includes texts as well as moving images, live music, audio.
Early English Books Online (EEBO)
Contains titles written between 1473 and 1700 printed in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and British North America. Includes primary sources such as almanacs, pamphlets, musical scores, and prayer books.
Eighteenth Century Collections Online
This resource is compiled from Gale's The Eighteenth Century microfilm collection and the English Short Title Catalogue, providing an online library of 18th century titles printed in the United Kingdom.