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Introduction to Primary Sources
I M A U-M-N-B-N!
What is a primary source?
Something written or produced by someone with firsthand knowledge of the event or period in history
Will generally only represent the viewpoint of the author/creator and will therefore be biased towards their views.
Why is it important to use primary sources in historical research?
A few examples of questions
What could possibly make you want to use deadly nightshade drops in your eyes?
How could so many people be transfixed by the Nazi idology?
What made people think that throwing a witch in the water was a good way to tell if she was guilty?
Primary sources can give us insights into what people actually thought and felt during the time being examined.
Primary sources can help you understand the environment, culture, and prevailing mindsets during these events/eras
What kinds of documents are we talking about?
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
Diaries, Manuscripts, and memoirs
Diary of Anne Frank
Origin of Species- Charles Darwin
Autobiography of Malcolm X
Unibomber Manifesto (manifestos count too!)
Letters and Correspondence
Letter from a Birmingham Jail-Martin Luther King Jr.
Love letters from King Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn
Letters home from the front during World War I
FDR Presidential Library & Museum
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
Mercator World Map- 1569
Congressional district maps
Manitoba Historical Maps
Newspapers and Magazines
New York Times article about the Titanic slipping its moorings at the dock and almost colliding with other ships before launch- April 11, 1912
New York Times article about the shooting of President Lincoln- April 15, 1865
Chicago Daily Tribune article headline "Dewey Defeats Truman"- November 3, 1948
An ad from a Victorian era Ladies magazine promoting a tincture to dilate the pupils so as to appear more desirable to men
Visual materials and Artifacts
Photograph of Kennedy just before he was assassinated
Television news broadcasts of 9/11 bombings
Flyer advocating for prohibition
There are others too. Ask yourself...
Was this author/creator directly involved in the event or era you are examining?
Could s/he have had firsthand knowledge of what was going on?
Have I verified that this source is actually from the time period it says it's from?
When in doubt, ask your professor or a librarian.
a fake letter
That letter is from
which is a very funny site with obviously fake content. Sometimes it's not so obvious though. So make sure you verify the origins of sources you're using.
So where do I go to find primary sources?
Places where you can find primary sources...
Library catalog (helpful search terms: diary, memoir, personal narratives, correspondence, letters, etc.)
Archives (physical and digital)
Newspaper (print, microfilm, databases)
Some helpful sources
Research guide- Full text primary source collections-United States
Research guide- Historical news sources
Full text primary source collections-United States-
Historical news sources-
Call numbers for history
E-F- History of the Americas
For a full breakdown visit
CCAC North Library
Always ask for help if you need it!
or visit the Ask Us section of our hompage
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