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Historical Primary Sources: Finding and Analyzing Primary Sources

Definitions of Primary Sources

Primary Sources are the raw data which are directly associated with their producer or user and the time period in which they were created. Examples include:

  • Public Records -- government documents, , court records, wills, tax records
  • Offfical Records -- for the operation of governments, such as laws and legislation
  • Personal Documents -- diaries, letters, email, correspondence, oral histories, household managment records
  • Artifacts and Relics --the material culture of life; furniture, tools, machines, clothing
  • Organizational Records -- all organizations keep some form of financial documents and minutes, among other records; businesses, charities, civic clubs
  • Images -- photographs, posters, paintings, engravings, icons,
  • Architecture, City Plans, and Maps -- how neighborhoods change, cities develop, landscape changes
  • Media -- television news, newspapers, broadsides
  • Literary Texts -- text of a novel, essay, poem, play, short story, religious work

Questions To Ask About Primary Sources


1.What types of primary materials might have been produced? Remember to think both about printed materials such as documents as well as physical representations of culture such as art work and architecture.

2.Who would have produced these primary sources?

3.Who would have used and/or critiqued these primary sources?

4.When would these primary sources have been produced?

5.Would these primary sources have been published, unpublished, or represented in another form (an audiotape of an interview, for instance)?


Using a Catalog to Find Primary Sources

Use the following strategies to locate primary sources in a catalog (Miami's catalog, OhioLINK, Worldcat and others)

  1. Search by keyword in a boolean search. For example (obsteric* or midwi*) and then limit by date of publication.
  2. Search by "corporate author," that is who (person, organization) would have written or produced the primary source. The "official body". Examples might be the United Nations, United Auto Workers, American Temperance Society.
  3. Search either by subject or keyword (a very broad topic search) and then limit by
    • sources
    • documents
    • statistics
    • antiquties
    • correspondence
    • diaries
    • personal narratives

Evaluating Images

Below are some basic questions that will help you to evaluate photographs.© Information-Literate Historian. NY: Oxford University Press, 2006. For a more comprehensive list of evaluative questions for evaluation of all types of images, see: Visual Literacy Toolbox: Bank of Questions (University of Maryland, College Park)

1.    What is the social and historical context for this image?
2.    Was the image meant to be displayed? Publicly? In a private home? On a wall?  Is it a reproduction?  Was it used for another purpose than the way you see it now?
4.    What might have happened before and after this image was created? 
4.    What is outside the frame of the image?  What has been left out?  What should be in the image that is missing?
5.    What was the artist’s source for the piece of artwork? Was the artist the eyewitness, creating from the event, looking at the landscape, or posing the individual, or was the artist working from a newspaper description or from memory?
6.    What gender, race, and class issues are reflected here?  How has the photographer addressed or not addressed those issues?
7.    What cultural presuppositions do you bring from your time that the contemporary viewer would not have had?
8.    What relationships or connections do the people have to the objects?
9.    How did the photographer set up the photograph?  Can you tell that the photographer made choices about the angle, lighting, and focus (foreground, background) that might influence how you perceive -- and how the photograph’s contemporaries may have perceived -- the image’s meaning and effect? Be careful not to label or stereotype people or objects, as this may lead you to erroneous conclusions.
10.    Does the photograph or image ignore issues and details contemporary to its depiction or present them in a certain way that may lead you to a certain view about the image?