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Humanities Research: Sources and Strategies: Primary sources

Tips for Primary Sources

Definition of a primary source:

  • Creative works -- creator's original materials (manuscript, artwork, etc.); early published editions; early reviews
  • Accounts of historical events -- eyewitness accounts; other contemporary ("of the same time period") accounts; letters, diaries, interviews
  • Artifacts -- objects contemporary with an event
  • Capture via photography, sound recording, video, transcription, etc.


Your primary sources may change depending on the focus of your research question:

  • Joshua (Biblical book) -- if you're researching the Bible, Joshua would be your primary source.
  • Origen's (2nd century) commentary on Joshua -- if you're researching early Christianity, Origen would be your primary source.
  • Whitaker (16th century) citing Origen's commentary on Joshua -- if you're researching the Reformation, Whitaker would be your primary source.

Another example:

  • Sandburg's biography of Lincoln would be a secondary source for Lincoln, a primary source for Sandburg.


Primary sources reflect their time and place:

  • Consider the author's intent/point of view; how close the source is to the event, etc.
  • Fiction and other creative works can be important sources reflecting their time and place, historical events, etc.


Finding primary sources:

  • Use library catalogs to locate primary source materials, such as contemporary or first-hand accounts. Use subject terms that are used to describe these types of resources, e.g. --personal narratives, --sources, --correspondence, --diaries (see mindmap "Useful Keywords" under "Resources" below).
  • Bibliographies: authors may cite special collections, archives, or other sources they used.
  • Databases (see "Resources" below)
  • Special collections in libraries and archives (see separate page in this guide)


Manuscript collections:

  • May be available as published compilations (the letters of Mozart; a soldier's diary or memoirs). Search in library catalogs using search terms "personal narratives," "correspondence," "sources" (see mindmap "Useful Keywords" under Resources below, for more).
  • May be available on websites of individual libraries or archives, either through their finding aids (ZSR), or as digital images.
  • May be available in specialized databases (on ZSR's "Databases" page, see "History: Primary Sources" or "Arts & Humanities: Literary Texts").


Individual writers and artists: acquiring a complete list of their works ("worklist") for in-depth study:


  • Thematic catalogs ("thematic" = shows musical notation of principle themes/tunes; numbers works ("opus" numbers); describes early sources).
  • Library catalog subject search: [Composer] Thematic catalogs.


  • Catalogues raisonnes ("reasoned catalog;" numbers and describes works; shows image).
  • Library catalog subject search: [Artist] Catalogues raisonnes.


  • Descriptive bibliographies (describes all editions of a work; shows original title pages).
  • Library catalog subject search: [Author] Bibliography (look for "descriptive" in titles)

    Collected editions:

  • Scholarly edition of a writer's or composer's complete works
  • Find them cited in encyclopedias, bibliographies, worklists


Types of primary source material besides textual:

    Sound recordings:

  • Can include non-music (poetry readings, oral histories, etc.)
  • Discographies (library catalog subject search: [name or subject] Discography)
  • Composer websites
  • Libraries' and archives' websites (see "Resources" box  below)


  • Art
  • Historical events
  • Find in databases, websites, libraries and archives (see "Resources" box  below)


  • Dance, theatre, film
  • Historical events
  • Find in databases, websites, libraries and archives (see "Resources" box  below)

    Performance practice:

  • historical evidence of how the arts were practised in early periods
  • contemporary accounts
  • early technical treatises, textbooks (library catalog subject search: [subject] early works)


  • use of images in early sources for purposes of historical research
  • library catalog subject search: [subject] pictorial works
  • keyword searching: iconograph?

Primary Sources: Resources

Mindmap: Sources of a creative work

Mindmap: Useful Keywords for searching library catalogs  (see "primary sources")

Mindmap: Reference Resources (see "primary sources," "worklists")

Tutorial (UNC-Chapel Hill): Finding Primary Source Documents


ZSR's "Databases" page: under "History," you'll find "Primary Sources."


Libraries increasingly make available digitized collections. For example, here are some of the Library of Congress' collections, containing documents, photos, sound recordings:

See also "Books" and "Web Resources" in this guide.

Primary Sources: Should I do a Broad or Narrow Search?

Research involving primary source material tends to be on a pretty focused topic: a specific historical event, a specific person's creative works, a specific place, etc. Use some such aspect of your topic in your search strategy.

Depending on your topic, you may be looking for a particular type of material: private writings such as letters and diaries, or published documentation such as newspaper articles or early reviews, or performances captured via audio, video, etc.  You can refine your search strategy accordingly by using related subject terms (see mindmap "Useful Keywords" under "Resources" above) or related search limits in library catalogs and databases.