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History: Primary Sources: Tips

Further reading

Books discussing history research and writing can be found in the D13-D16 call number range.  Several of these are written for students and cover finding and using primary sources.

Context is key

Some sources may be primary or secondary;
it depends on your research topic.

Many formats

Expect multiple formats;
there is no one-stop shopping!

    Thomas Jefferson's correspondence exists in:
  • original manuscript format
  • published print collections
    Either may be reproduced:
  • on microfilm
  • digitally


Find these by using

library catalogs, Archives USA, bibliographies and footnotes, primary source databases, library/archive websites, and Google


Consider format as you evaluate

Format impacts what you can glean from a source,
and possibly your ability to utilize it.

Professional historians often travel to use archival sources in their original format and language.  This usually isn't practical for students, but bear these things in mind.

Original manuscripts may contain handwritten notes in the margins (or other useful info) that a published copy lacks.

Edited and translated works are subject to possible errors and biases of editors and translators.

Digital copies need particular scrutiny. They may contain transcription errors, may not reliably represent the original source, or may be of dubious origin (incomplete citation).  After all, anyone can post something online.

Subject Guide

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Lauren Bellard
Library South
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