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ZSR Library

Guide to Primary Sources on American Indians in ZSR Special Collections and Archives: Research with Primary Sources

What is a primary source?

In historical research, a primary source can be any source of information created at the time of a historical event or by a direct participant in or observer of an event.

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.

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.

How do I find 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.

  1. 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 on a subject!

  2. The bibliography of a relevant secondary source work will list the primary sources that the author used in his/her research. These may be mostly unpublished archival materials, but some may be available online (see no. 8 below).

  3. When you're searching the 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.

  4. 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.

  5. ZSR's Find a Database page has a section which lists primary source databases relevant to history.

  6. Search archival holdings of newspapers and magazines for articles written during the relevant time period. The library catalog will provide information on ZSR subscriptions. Also look for digital archives of newspapers and periodicals, such as the Proquest Historical Newspapers or C19 datatbases.

  7. Many of the sites listed in the Internet Resources section of this guide have links to digital collections of primary source materials.

  8. Unpublished primary source materials are found in archives throughout the world. You can locate them through resources like the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections , Repositories of Primary Sources, or ArchiveGrid. Even if you aren't able to travel to remote collections, you may find that  repositories  have digitized materials from their collections available on their websites.

Questions to ask of a primary source

What is it? (Correspondence, pamphlet, photograph, oral history, artifact, etc.)

Who is the author/creator?

When was it created?

Why was it created?

If you have access to the actual item, are there any notable physical features?

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?

What questions do you have after studying the source?


Subject Guide

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Megan Mulder
Special Collections & Archives
Z. Smith Reynolds Library
Wake Forest University
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