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HST 114/WGS 377: Gender & Sexuality in World History: Introduction to Primary Sources

Spring 2020

Definition

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 Some of these may be unpublished archival materials that may or may not be digitized or available online.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. 

How to Read a Primary Source

Good reading grows from asking good questions of your sources. Even if you believe you can't arrive at the answers, imagining possible answers will aid your comprehension. You will develop your own strategies for reading primary sources; these questions are just to get you started. Use specific examples from the text and explain your reasoning.

Purpose:

  • Who is the author and what is her or his place in society?
  • Why did the author prepare the document? What event prompted its creation?
  • What is at stake for the author in this text? Why do you think she or he wrote it? What evidence in the text tells you this?
  • Beyond the author’s intentions, what can we learn about this author, event, and the larger society from this document?

Argument:

  • Does the author have a thesis? What is that thesis?
  • What is the text trying to do? How does the text make its case? What is its strategy for accomplishing its goal? How does it carry out this strategy?
  • What is the intended audience of the text? How might this influence its rhetorical strategy?
  • What arguments or concerns does the author respond to that are not clearly stated?

Presuppositions:

  • How do the ideas and values in the source differ from the ideas and values of our age?
  • What presumptions and preconceptions do we as readers bring to bear on this text? For instance, what portions of the text might we find objectionable, but which contemporaries might have found acceptable.
  • How might the difference between our values and the values of the author influence the way we understand the text? Explain how such a difference in values might lead us to misinterpret the text, or understand it in a way contemporaries would not have.

Relate (compare this text to similar texts):

  • What patterns or ideas are repeated throughout the readings?
  • What major differences appear in them? Why do these differences appear?
  • Which do you find more reliable and credible, and why?

Mir Yarfitz adapted and revised from Patrick Rael’s “Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for
College Students,” at http://academic.bowdoin.edu/WritingGuides/

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