*Investigating Public Figures with Primary Sources

A guide to finding primary sources by politicians, activists, and pundits. Created for POLS4590.

What are primary sources?

A primary source is a piece of content that reports the first-hand experience of an individual.
Primary sources, like eye-witness statements, can exist in many forms, for example:
  • Textual primary sources could be created in the forms of journal entries, meeting notes, court records, email conversations, or even business records. Textual primary sources are print or digital records of words, which were written or typed directly by an individual subject, as well as transcripts of words spoken by that subject.
  • Audio-visual primary sources could be produced in the forms of vlogs, photographs, podcasts, advertisements, or even illustrations. Audio-visual primary sources are media records that depict the original words, actions, or productions of an individual subject.

 

Assisted Production of Primary Sources

A public figure may produce a primary source on their own, but sometimes the preservation of a living person's primary account is facilitated by a third party.

For example, an audio-visual recording of an on-the-record interview between a journalist and a politician WOULD be considered a primary source produced through the interview process. A political speech, transcribed and archived by a librarian, WOULD also be a primary source. 

On the other hand, an opinion on statements made by a politician, even if written by a knowledgeable researcher, would NOT be a primary source of the politician (unless it is the opinion of that politician).

The key difference here is that a primary source is fundamentally the representation of a moment or series of moments, depicted by a person who directly witnessed or experienced those moments -- NOT a person analyzing those same moments through reports made by others.

Searching Tips

 
  1. Clearly identify an individual and facts you already know about them; use these in your search strategy
  2. Identify employment titles, affiliated organizations, and known issues; use these in your search strategy
  3. Isolate a few locations where the person has lived, worked, or traveled; also isolate date ranges and significant events
  4. Look for resources in the public figure's area of birth and current/past residences (their local libraries, museums, government collections)
  5. Use the cntrl+f function to comb through documents and webpages more efficiently
  6. If searching in a database, designate the person you are researching as the author in your search; this should limit results to products created specifically by that individual
After you develop a search strategy, start searching for content published openly online:
It is important to verify that a piece of content found online is actually a primary source by (or an audio-visual recording of) the specific individual you are researching. Click here for a worksheet to help you evaluate primary sources found on social media, created by Robin Katz of UCAL.

Subject Headings

Primary sources available through library systems are assigned one or more standardized subject headings. Attaching these designated terms to a source's library record ensures that all primary sources relating to the same overall topic are able to be located in a single search, even when more specific keywords in the items' library records are different. For example: primary sources relating to Edward Snowden AND primary sources relating to Chelsea Manning would show up in a search using the subject heading "whistleblowing". To find sources relating to a particular subject: (1) explore the library record that describes a primary source you find interesting, (2) locate the subjects attached to that library record, (3) click the linked subject headings or copy and paste one into your search string, (4) limit your search to primary sources.

Search Strategy

To gain a more direct view of a living public figure's perspective, a researcher may want to locate primary sources created by the individual.
HOWEVER, FIRST:

To help you identify and then use targeted terminology in your search strategy, start by first gaining an understanding of the person's ideologies or platforms through the lens of a nonpartisan reference or collaborative information sourceBallotopedia is my preferred resource, and Wikipedia is often an acceptable starting point (check Wikipedia's references and links to find additional resources)! 

You can also use this tabbed box to browse keywords relating to primary political sources.

Acts
Archival
Archival footage
Assembly
Audio
Autobiography
Autobiographical
 

Business

Census
Commentary
Committee
Correspondence
Court records
 

Deeds
Discussion thread
Divorce records

Education
Email

Facebook
Film
Financial records

Government
Government documents
Government publications
Government records

Handbook

Instagram
Interview
Investigation

Journal

Land record
Lawsuit
Legal proceedings
Legal records
Legislation
Letters
Location data

Maiden name
Manual
Manifesto
Meeting
Memoir
Military
Military orders
Minutes

Negligence
Nepotism

Official
Office
Officer
Oral account
Oral history
Op-Ed
Opinion

Papers
Personal narrative
Phone call
Phone records
Platform
Podcast
Political
Politician
Policy
Poster
Press
Press release
Propoganda
Public
Public figure

Recording
Reddit
Resume

Screencast
Sermon
Speech
Speaker
Streaming
 

Telephone records
Testimony
TikTok
Title records
Treaties
Twitter

Verified
Video

Webcast
Whitepages

Yellowpages

Examples

 
Web-Based Examples:

AND

More established politicians may also have worked with publishing and production companies to create:


Official Documents

You can also find digitized official documents and data collections like:

Open Access Week 2022

Librarian Charlene

Finding Digital Primary Resources

Fact Checking Tookbox