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HI 3903: Historiography and Historical Methods

What are Primary Source Materials?

About primary sources

Primary sources can be either published or unpublished, and can be found in many formats, such as manuscripts, books, microfilm, photographs, video and sound recordings. Some primary sources are available in more than one format -- for example, a collection of manuscript letters may also have been published in book form, or may have been digitized and made available on the Internet. Begin by asking two basic questions:

  • What evidence was created?
  • What evidence was saved, and where?

What evidence was created?

For the most part, the evidence used by historians to answer historical questions was not created for that purpose. The evidence of the past -- official records, personal papers, video recordings, physical remains -- was created to serve the purposes of people with very different agendas. Nonetheless, it is very useful to think about some broad categories of evidence, in part because understanding these categories can help you find the material you need.

  • The records and publications of governments
  • The records and publications of organizations
  • The papers of individuals
  • Material culture -- buildings, artifacts, and art

It is particularly useful to consider whether the material you need would have been published (newspapers, books) or would have had a more limited circulation (intra-office memos, personal correspondence, a private photo album.)

What evidence was saved, and where?

Think about who might have collected the material you're hoping to find:

  • Published primary sources like newspapers, books, and government reports are likely to be held in libraries.
  • Unpublished documents and administrative records produced by national government agencies are likely to be held in national archives; those produced by local administrations are likely to be held in municipal record offices or state archives.
  • Materials produced by an organization or business will likely be held by that organization if it still exists; if it no longer exists, look for an affiliated organization or a library or archive that collects material on that topic.
  • Personal papers, diaries, and materials related to local history are likely to be held in local libraries or historical societies.
  • Museum, archives and libraries all have collections of art and artifacts as well a written records.

Some examples:

Finally, keep in mind that the material you need may be scattered among several libraries and archives.

Strategies for finding primary source materials
  • Consult the bibliography, notes and acknowledgments of a good, recent secondary work on the subject that interests you -- does the writer tell you where the primary sources can be found?
  • Can you identify an important person who was involved in the events you are studying? Can you identify an organization that was involved in the events you are studying? Search WorldCat for that organization as an Author.
    • Search Worldcat for that person as an Author. You will find both published and unpublished material by that person.
  • Search ArchiveGrid, a database that lists archival collections in the U.S. and elsewhere.
  • To find printed subject guides to archival resources in the library catalogs, do a keyword search for a subject term plus archiv?, e.g. brewing and archiv?
  • Google your topic, using words like "papers" or "archives" as part of your search.
  • Meet with a librarian to identify primary source collections in our library, ones that you can borrow from other libraries, or access online.

[ Content in this section is based on history libguides created by Elizabeth Z. Bennett, Princeton University ]

Searching for Primary Sources at MSU

There are many options for locating primary source materials at MSU Libraries:

Searching for Primary Sources at MSU

MSU Digital Collections

The Mississippi State University Libraries and the Digital Preservation and Access Unit (DPAU) have initiated a number of digital projects to preserve unique collections and make them more readily accessible. Several of these digital collections were grant funded. Development continues on these and several other digital collections.