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Using Primary Resources


Primary sources are records created by people who directly experienced the topic under discussion. The types of records can vary widely, but all are first-hand accounts of the event. Secondary sources are generated by people without personal knowledge; authors often use primary sources to create secondary sources.

Types of records often considered primary sources:

  • Artifacts
  • Contemporary news articles
  • Correspondence
  • Diaries
  • Film/video of event
  • Government documents
  • Interviews
  • Meeting minutes
  • Memos
  • Personal narratives
  • Photographs
  • Research data


Beginning Your Research


Start Early

Primary source research is often in-depth and time-consuming. Be prepared to travel to the source. If it can be borrowed via Interlibrary Loan you will still need to take into consideration the length of time it will take to arrive. Many historical documents are now available only on microfilm, which can be slow.

Get Background Information First

Find out what the issues surround the topic you are interested in. Analyze how other authors have interpreted it and use this as a base for developing your own conclusions. Examine secondary sources about your subject and take note of which primary sources the author(s) used.


Finding Primary Resources


Special Collections and Archives

Archives are repositories of records donated by individuals, families, groups, organizations, or other entities. The archivists care for them and make them available for researchers through finding aids, which are collection inventories. The Iowa State Special Collections Department is on the 4th floor of the Parks Library. In addition to the collection guides, many of ISU's finding aids are online and available through the library catalog.

Yale University offers an online tutorial about using manuscripts in the Yale Library, but it also includes some valuable information for new users of archives as well:

For a listing of repositories with archival materials, please visit the Repository of Primary Sources:

Library Catalogs/WorldCar

Many libraries catalog primary sources and include them in their online public access catalog (OPAC). Make sure to think carefully search terms - include possible people or organizations that may have been involved as authors, and remember to search by subject rather than simply keyword.  An easy way to locate primary sources is to search by genre, which means diaries, narratives, memoirs, correspondence, etc.


In order to make unique resources available in disperse geographic areas many libraries offer copies on microfilm, allowing researchers access to rare historical documents without traveling. Another advantage is that while libraries and archives will not lend out documents, they will interlibrary loan microfilmed versions. Therefore, while you may not be near an archives with documents relating to your topic, you may still be able to gather valuable information.

National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC)

This catalog is a unified resource for primary sources and includes oral history interview, personal/family papers, organizational archives, and many other resources contributed by repositories nationwide.

Periodical indexes

With such indexes as the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature and various newspaper indexes such as The New York Times (which dates back to 1851) and The London Times (which dates to 1790), you can look for relevant articles in the time period of your study.

Compilations of primary source material in published form

Historians often gather together the papers of a significant individual and create a published volume of the works, which becomes widely available. Such is the case for Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thaddeus Stevens.


Internet resources are easy to access and can provide valuable information. The best way to find digitized versions of primary sources is through digital libraries such as the Library of Congress' American Memory Project or the Iowa Heritage Digital Collections. Sites such as Academic Info provide lists of such resources.


Evaluating Primary Resources


Primary sources are invaluable tools for understanding how and why events happened. It is essential to evaluate the source, however, and understand the motive behind its creation and how it can alter the value of the informational content.


 Questions to ask should include:

  • Who created the source and why?
  • What sorts of information does the source supply?
  • Under what circumstances was the source created? How would this influence the content of the source?
  • For whom was the source created?
  • Was the source meant to be public or private?
  • Did the creator wish to inform, persuade, or deceive his or her audience? What did the creator hope to accomplish by writing the source? Can you trust the source's content at face value?

What were the opinions, motivations, or interests of the creator? How does his or her point of view compare to other writers of the period? What kind of impact would this have on the content of the source?