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ASEM 2449 American Material Culture: Home

This is a course-specific guide focused on primary source research.

What is a Primary Source?

Correspondence, diaries, interviews, speeches, memoirs, maps, account books, inventories, public opinion polls, and other original documents, created at the time of an event or during the lifetime of an individual or institution that can be used to understand people and events of the past, are considered primary source material.  Depending on the project, newspaper and magazine articles, images, film, advertisements, government documents, and so forth may also be considered primary source materials. Physical artifacts of all kinds, such as buildings, household objects, tools, clothing, furniture, and toys, to name a few examples, can also be understood as primary sources.

A primary source is different from a secondary source in that it frequently has an immediate or direct connection to an historical moment. The primary source recounts an event from the perspective of an individual or organization that was there at the time. A secondary source, on the other hand, analyzes or interprets an historical event from a removed perspective.

The University Libraries have physical primary source materials in Special Collections & Archives, with some of the materials scanned and available via Digital DU.

On this page are strategies for finding original, transcribed, reprinted, and surrogate versions of primary sources in library catalogs and on the Internet.

The other tabs on this guide feature selected databases of primary source material, including historical newspapers, periodicals, government documents, and digitized primary source collections.

Other Search Strategies

1. A search in WorldCat and limited to "Archival Materials" will retrieve records for physical archives or archives that have been reproduced in some other format, such as microform.   

2. You can often identify relevant archival collections for your research if you check the preface or introduction to printed collections and anthologies of primary source materials, or examine the reference list or bibliography for a book or journal article about the topic in which the author or editor consulted primary source materials.

3. To locate primary source collections on the Internet, search Google with the relevant keywords; limit to an education (,edu) or government domain (.gov), if relevant:

"civil rights movement" interviews site:.edu

Strategies for Finding Primary Source Material

The library catalog is a good place to start when searching for primary source materials, including correspondence, diaries, memoirs, archival records, and other types of documents, either held in the library's Special Collections and Archives division, reprinted as books, or microform or digital surrogates of the original.

Monographs written at the time of the event can make useful primary source material.

The terms, diaries, personal narratives, correspondence, speeches, interviews, sources, archives, manuscripts, and document* can be added to a keyword search to locate primary sources in the library catalog, Prospector, and WorldCat. For example, if looking for primary source materials related to an event or topic, such as the Civil Rights Movement, you can do keyword searches as follows:

"united states" "civil rights" sources

"african americans" "civil rights" interviews

Or you can search for primary sources related to an individual or organization:

Martin Luther King speeches

"Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee" correspondence

If you are interested in locating images, the keyword phrase "pictorial works" can be very useful.

"civil rights" "pictorial works"

Library of Congress Subject Headings and Primary Source Materials

Many of the primary source keywords listed above are subheadings that appear frequently in Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). Depending on the number of sources you retrieve with a keyword search in a library catalog, you may want to search with a specific subject heading.

  • Diaries and personal narratives apply to published memoirs
  • Correspondence and interviews refer to collections of sources
    • None of these terms necessarily means that the source was published specifically as a primary source, though they all can be used as such.
  • Sources, applies to collections of materials, of whatever nature, that have been compiled specifically as anthologies of primary source materials.
    • These could include collections of correspondence, articles, excerpts from longer publications, or anything else that might be useful for study of the subject.
  • Archives and manuscripts are often used to designate collections of materials held in original manuscript format by the library.
  • Document*, truncated here to search for any word beginning with “document,” does not necessarily appear in LCSH. It is useful as a keyword, however, since compilations of primary source material, published as such, often have titles that include the terms “documents” or “documentary.”

Examples of LC Subject Headings with terms indicating primary source material underlined:

  • Washington, George, 1732-1799 – Archives
  • Indians of North America -- Wars -- 1866-1895 -- Personal narratives

  • African American Women -- Diaries
  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- Sources

  • Adams, Abigail, 1744-1818 -- Correspondence