Finding Primary Sources

I wrote up a few notes for my first-year students working on research papers about search strategies to help find primary sources (documents, letters, memoirs, and so on). These notes follow on the students having chosen and refined a topic and having found a few initial scholarly or secondary materials relevant to their chosen subject matter. The key context here is that this is for undergraduates who have access to library collections rather than for researchers who have access to specialized archives, and who are therefore searching primarily for edited collections of primary source material, or for highly relevant memoirs.


1. Use the bibliographies of the best secondary sources you find. A bibliography is the distillation of someone else’s research, and it’s often the quickest way to get a full sense of what the historiography of a field is (e.g., what the authoritative sources and discussions over time have been). It’s even better if you have two bibliographies to compare in books or articles which are very similar in the topics they address. Bibliographies of scholarly works often break out primary and secondary sources into separate categories. Also: the content of a good secondary work is going to tell you about important primary texts, so you actually have to read some of these materials carefully.

2. Use the keyword “memoir” and “memor*” (memory, memories) in association with subject keywords connected to your topic.

3. Use the keyword “letter” in association with subject keywords connected to your topic.

4. Use the keyword “source” in association with subject keywords connected to your topic.

5. The Library of Congress Subject headings will sometimes turn up significant amounts of primary source material if you use the additional search term “History”. For example, “Cookery–History”. You’ll need to get a sense from titles and other catalogue information which listings in a search like this are primary sources, but this will often be apparent.

6. The Library of Congress Subject headings also use “Sources” as a subheading. Look down an overall listing of a relevant subject heading to see if there are any subheadings for Sources. For example, “Imperialism–History–Sources”.

7. Read sequentially through old newspapers around dates or times you know to be important to your topic–not just or even primarily for news stories, but more for slice of life materials (letters to the editor, commentaries, etc.) Do the same for important magazines that you have access to through your library collection. This only works if you have a fairly date-specific topic in mind, however, or if you have a lot of time to read rapidly through a large amount of material. Otherwise, you’ll need to use one of many possible indices to help refine a search of old periodical material.

8. Use date-sensitive searches in regular online indices. Meaning, go into the advanced interface for searches and constrain the dates for results to some older time period relevant to your topic.

9. There are a variety of digitized, online archival collections which may be available through your local university or college library. For some topics, there will be very little available, for others quite a lot. Some of these collections have very well-designed interfaces for searching within the collection, while others are difficult to search. Assessing what’s available and how to search is a lot easier if you consult your local library staff.

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3 Responses to Finding Primary Sources

  1. Katie Davenport says:

    Warning, warm fuzzy ahead…

    I’m student-teaching high school biology these days, and I recently got some big kudos from my mentor for “actively helping my students develop metacognitive skills” (that is, I try to teach them and get them to think about: how to study for a test, how to do homework in a way that helps you learn, how to complete an assignment in a way your teacher will like, how to look stuff up, etc.)

    Now I remember how much your class made me aware that this stuff is all an art than CAN be taught ON PURPOSE. Thanks!

  2. AndrewSshi says:

    Your post reminds me of a bit of frustration that I had recently. I was putting together a sample syllabus for a “dream course” that I’ve enclosed with the applications that require sample syllabi and to bring to any AHA interviews that I may get (*knocks on wood, crosses fingers*). The problem with this course, though, is that it would be Medieval Popular Religion, and I had a realization that there were damn few primary sources in English and that even a lot of the secondary scholarship is in French. Now then, I finally did manage to put the syllabus together (along with, of course, a Western Civ syllabus), but it left me with the realization of just how much need there is for translations of primary sources for the purposes of undergrad teaching (and to help professional scholars who’s language skills are spotty).

  3. Carl says:

    TB, this is terrific, thank you. I’ll be teaching the sophomore seminar in the Spring, and this should come in handy. I’m also going to use O. and C.’s Burying SM; unpacking it with the students should be a blast. Thanks again for that recommendation.

    Good luck, Andrew! (Warning: unsolicited anecdotal advice follows.) I remember my own job-search-dream-course syllabi with some embarrassment. It seemed so important to get exactly the right list of the perfect books – lots of them, so everyone could see I knew my stuff and was serious about passing it along. My experience since is that the critical thinking mission is in tension with the content transmission mission – we can challenge their cognition or we can challenge their data uptake, but trying to do both at once usually overloads their systems and produces high quantities of prof-lounge howlers.

    Awareness of this trade-off is one of the things savvy reviewers look for in sample syllabi, and you will be evaluated on whether you are a teacher (thinking focus) or a schooler (content focus). Either may be what’s wanted, and a balance can be an impressive tour de force, but realism is important in any case.

    I’m at a smaller regional teaching university and I’ve run a couple of searches. The dream content syllabus wouldn’t help you much here; it screams ‘learning curve’ and there are plenty of good candidates out there with actual functional syllabi informed by actual teaching experience. You can simulate that, but to do it you’ll need to regroup around the fact that what looks like thin publication by scholarly standards is glut by ordinary undergrad standards. Three books for a semester is a lot here, four starts to push credulity, and if you’re going to do primary sources don’t try to do much else because teaching them to read them and then write about them coherently will take up most of your class time. (By the way, I’m one of the ‘high expectations’ hardasses around here. That’s why I actually teach them to read rather than fantasizing that someday I’ll get students who already know how to do it: so I can hold them meaningfully accountable for college-level learning.) I guess I’m just saying that you may want to have different sample syllabi for my kind of school and R1s.

    Blahblah, sorry for the old guy babble. Again, good luck!

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