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HIST2600: Historical Methods (20th Century U.S. History Focus): Finding Primary Sources

Resources for historical methods and research projects, with a focus on materials in the 20th century United States history.

Finding Primary Sources

Your research paper will include the use of primary sources. A primary source in history is a body of evidence that was created in the time (and place) that is the focus of your study. There are any number of objects that can be regarded as primary sources for historical research, including items found through archaeological excavations, old buildings, coins, and many types of documents, such as legal or religious or scientific texts, letters, diaries, memoirs, business records, maps, censuses, inscriptions, literature, government documents, notesbooks, transcriptions of speeches or sermons or debates, hand-drawn illustrations or sketches, and paintings. Modern technology has given us newspapers, photographs, films, audio recordings, and digital data.

What you will use as a primary source for your research will be determined to a great extent by your topic and your research question because certain topics and questions will typically point to source types that should be used.

There are a wide variety of such sources, both published and unpublished, and this section will point you to some resources you can use to locate them.

Published sources include materials that were published in their original form (for example, books, magazines, newspapers, many government documents, etc.) and materials that were originally in manuscript form and subsequently collected and edited in published form (for example, published "documentary histories," published diaries, published collections of letters, etc.). For students, the practical advantage of published sources is that they tend to be more accessible because they are available through libraries. Documents in published form are often easier to read because handwritten script has been converted to printed typeface, and in many cases documents produced in languages you may not be able to read are published in translation.

Unpublished sources include materials that are usually in their original manuscript form (for example, letters, diaries, personal papers, business records, etc.) or artefacts or many types. When available for use in research, these are usually found in archival repositories or museums. It is true that an increasing number of unpublished sources are now being digitized and in many cases are publically available through web-accessible digital libraries, but the vast majority of unpublished sources have not been digitized and are not accessible thorugh the web.

While it may be necessary to conduct searches in catalogs, databases, and the web, you should not underestimate the enormous value of your secondary sources in providing you with guidance in identifying useful primary sources. Always check the notes and bibliographies of the books and articles you are using for your project, as these can be enormous time-savers.

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