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.