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Primary Sources at ZSR


What is a primary source? 

Primary sources were either created during the time period being studied or were created at a later date by a participant in the events being studied (as in the case of memoirs).  They reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer.  Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period. Primary sources can include memoirs, diaries, correspondence, interviews, photographs, newspaper or magazine articles, film footage, news broadcasts, official documents, speeches, maps, artifacts, and works of fiction or drama.

secondary source is a work that interprets or analyzes an historical event or phenomenon. Secondary sources are often based on primary sources. 

What constitutes a primary source depends entirely on the subject of research. For example, John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage would be a secondary source in a study of John Quincy Adams or Sam Houston, but it could serve as a primary source if the topic of study were Kennedy himself.

Finding Primary Sources

Primary sources are available in many forms, so there is no one method for searching them out. There are, however, some general guidelines for getting started.

  • If you've been assigned a research project that will require primary sources, do a preliminary survey of what sources are available before settling on a final topic. It may be that very few primary sources exist for a proposed topic, or that those which do exist are in a foreign language or reside only in a distant archive. It's best to find this out before you've committed a lot of time and effort to a topic!
  • The bibliography of a relevant secondary source work will list the primary and secondary sources that the author used in his/her research. Some of these may be unpublished archival materials that may or may not be digitized or available online. 
  • When choosing keywords, keep in mind that the contemporary term for an event may be different than the one used in a primary source. For example, use "Great War" instead of "World War I". 
  • When you're searching the ZSR library catalog or WorldCat for materials, try appending one of the following terms to a subject search: personal narratives, sources, interviews, correspondence, diaries, archives. For example: "South African War, 1899-1902 -- Personal narratives" will retrieve memoirs of the Boer War.
  • Many primary sources are now available as scholarly reprints, sometimes as part of a compilation of sources on a specific topic. Look for materials with "sources", "documents", or "documentary history" in their titles. 

Questions to Ask about a Primary Source

In order to use a primary source effectively, you have to know some things about it! These are a few questions to ask about any primary source you are considering using for your research. 

  • What is it? 
  • Who is the author/creator? What can you find out about them? 
  • When was it created? (Is it actually primary?)
  • Why was it created? 
  • If you have access to the actual item, are there any notable physical features? (ex. size, paper quality, photographs, illustrations, binding, inscriptions, marginalia/notations) 
  • If it is digitized, who digitized it?  
  • If it's a published work, when was it published? Where? And by whom? 
  • What is the larger context of the source? What else was going on in the region/world at the time it was created? (This is where secondary sources can be really helpful!)
  • Does this source mention other potential sources or keywords that you can use to further your research? 
  • What questions do you have after studying the source? What else do you need/want to know? 

ZSR Special Collections & Archives

ZSR's Special Collection and Archives may contain useful materials on your topic. There are a variety of ways to search these materials, depending on their format. Contact SCA for more help with searching the collection. 

1. Search SCA materials (including books) in Primo. Limit your search to the Library Catalog and use the Location facet on the left side to limit to items in Special Collections (6th Floor). 

2. Search SCA Digital Collections to locate items that have already been digitized. These include the Old Gold and Black newspaper, the Howler yearbook, and some rare books and manuscript collections.  

3. Search SCA finding aids to locate unpublished materials in manuscript and archival collections that are not digitized. (Contact SCA at for help using finding aids!)