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Primary Sources

1. Identify Your Subject

 Identify your subject. Read basic background information. Examples include encyclopedia articles, introductory books, museum Web sites.

Try to answer the following questions:

  • Who: names of significant people, movements, or organizations

  • When: beginning and ending dates for individuals or events

  • Where: watch for place name changes in the past

  • What: Significance of subject can affect how many records from the past still exist

  • More info: watch for further references or citations to find additional information

For example, if the topic is "experience of Union soldiers in the US Civil War" you might have the following answers:

  • Who: President Lincoln, General Grant, General Sherman, Grand Army of the Republic (veterans' organization)

  • When: 1861-1865 are the dates of the war itself. Soldiers might have served more or less time.

  • Where: United States; Battle of Gettysburg; Sherman's March to the Sea; prisoner of war camp

  • What: the Civil War soldiers suffered a huge mortality and injury rate, and witnessed terrible carnage 

  • More info: Trudeau, Noah Andre. 1998. Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865. Edison, NJ: Castle Books. 

Notice that by the end of the list of examples, the topic is narrowed to the experiences of African American soldiers. Background information can guide you to a more focused topic.

 

Search for background information using the resources below:

2. What Sources?

Think about the types of records or documents that would have been created at the time period surrounding events and issues related to your topic. These are the sort of things you'll have to look for.

Here are some guiding questions (primary sources appear in parentheses): 

  • What was life/society like at the time?  (magazines, chronicles, newspapers, artworks)
  • What were the experience, beliefs, or priorities of relevant individuals / groups / organizations at the time? (autobiographies, interviews, diaries, letters, advertisements, manifestos)
  • What was the government attitude? What was the government of the day saying? (proclamations, monuments, records of debates, legislation, law codes)
  • How many people were involved in or affected by this issue / event? (statistics, official records, estimates based on material culture or remains)
  • What were people being told, what did they communicate? (newspapers, artworks, photographs, letters, secret communications)
  • What did things look like? (artwork, photographs, guide books for tourists, illustrations, postcards)

3. Use Special Keywords

Make yourself a list of keywords you can use to search for primary sources. In addition to describing your topic, your keywords should include special names for primary source materials.

Keywords that name and help find primary sources include: sources, documentary history, personal narratives, autobiographies, memoirs, eyewitness, correspondence, letters, diaries, advertising, newspapers, maps, artifacts, archives

Here's an example of how you can use the keywords together to search the LMU library catalog:

This image shows the Advanced Keyword Search box of the library catalog.  Three groups of keywords are entered. They are diaries or personal narratives or memoirs, civil war, united states. The special operator word AND joins the three groups of keywords.

This picture shows the Advanced Keyword Search box of the library catalog.  Three groups of keywords are entered. They are diaries or personal narratives or memoirs, civil war, united states. The special operator word AND joins the three groups of keywords.