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HST 110: Atlantic World Since 1500: Primary Sources

Fall 2020

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.

Tips for Locating Personal Narratives

Choose historically appropriate keywords. For example, use "Great War" instead of "World War I" to locate documents discussing the war during and just after it occurred. You may also consider different terms that might have been used to describe the same event from opposing sides or perspectives. Searching for the names of particular people or places may also be effective. 

Consider various types of primary sources that might be relevant to your topic, including: 

  • Magazine and newspaper articles

  • Diaries and journals

  • Memoirs and autobiographies

  • Audio recordings

  • Interviews

  • Letters

Use Primo, ZSR Library's discovery catalog, to search for subject headings that indicate an item might be a primary source, such as: 

  • diaries

  • letters

  • correspondence

  • autobiography

  • interviews

  • personal narratives 

  • sources

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. The SCA website contains more information about hours and research help. 

1. Search SCA materials (including books) in the library catalog. These include rare books from Britain and Ireland going back to the 18th century, such as travel narratives and papers from various figures in British history. 

2. Search SCA finding aids to locate materials in collections that are not digitized. (Visit the Special Collections and Archives room in ZSR 625 for help using finding aids!)

Questions to ask of a primary source

  1. What is this item?
  2. Who is the author/creator?
  3. Who is the intended audience?
  4. When and where was it published or created?
  5. Why was it created?
  6. What is the historical context of this item (i.e., what else was going on in the region or the world when it was created)?


Primary Source Databases & Digital Archives

The resources listed below are just a few of the online primary sources available through ZSR Library and on the web. If you are unable to find information on your topic, schedule a personal research session with a librarian for more help!



Subject Guide

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Kathy Shields
453 ZSR Library