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Primary Sources for World History since 1500: Types of Primary Sources

Tips, resources, and strategies for completing the second primary source assignment for Dr. Daniel Barish's section of HIS 1305

Introduction

Primary sources are created by individuals, organizations, private citizens, government offices, and many other groups. The ability to identify the type of primary source will help you think about where to look for it and understand why some types of sources may not be immediately available or available at all.

Primary Source Types

Table listing and describing the 9 major forms of primary source texts

Type

Description/Examples

Created By

Subject To

Public Records

* define populations (demographics)

* create policies and procedures

*maintain civil order

Examples: wills, census records, court records, tax records, local administrative records. May also include Church records and documents if the Church is/was a governing body (the modern-day Vatican, the Catholic Church during the European middle ages).

These records were generally not created with the intention of being published. May require looking in local archives

Governments (local, national); may include Churches as a governing body

Natural and man-made disasters; privacy regulations (for more recent documents).

 

LOCATING: confirm the official name and spelling of the government and the agency for the time period you are looking at.

Official Records

* define and document government operations

* may overlap with Public Records

Distinction: these were created with the intention of being made public.

Examples: laws, guidelines, office procedures, tax forms

Governments (local, national, federal), NGO's (United Nations, etc.)

Natural and man-made disasters.

 

LOCATING: confirm the official name and spelling of the government and the agency for the time period you are looking at. Legal and legislative research may require additional information.

Personal Documents

* Letters, Correspondence, & Email

* Diaries & journals

* Household accounts & records

* Oral histories

These are the documents that record the average person's lived experience and which provide insight into how peopled lived and reacted to the events of their times.

Individuals, famous and ordinary

Natural and man-made disasters; did anyone think this was important enough to keep? 

Increasing communication via technology rather than pen and paper is reshaping the forms of primary sources in this category for historians.

LOCATING: use the following keywords as appropriate to find the kind of information you want: diaries, correspondence, sources, personal narratives, oral history (combined with a place or event).

Artifacts & Relics

* mementos

* souvenirs 

* furniture

* paintings

* tools and implements

* household goods

* "stuff"

These cultural and material artifacts represent events, occasions, the conduct of daily life and labor.

Individuals, families, social organizations

Natural and man-made disasters; did anyone think this was important enough to keep?

LOCATING: use the following keywords as appropriate to find the kind of information you want: material culture, antiquities, collectibles, souvenirs, souvenirs keepsakes (both words as one phrase)

Business/Organization Documents

* inventories

* financial records

* membership lists

* social and civic activity documents (programs, ad campaigns, etc.)

* policies, shareholder lists, organizational records

Corporation or Social Organization

Early years may be haphazardly kept, but most modern businesses and organizations of any size have a records retention policy as well as some sort of archive program.

The records retention policy will often dictate what files are publicly accessible, usually on a defined time schedule.

Images

* photographs

* posters

* paintings

* videos & media

Individuals, corporations, organizations, government agencies (at all levels)

Natural and man-made disasters; did anyone think this was important enough to keep?

These primary sources often require skills in the visible culture of the time to interpret correctly or fully. Encyclopedias or directories of popular culture for the time can be helpful.

Maps/Architecture & City Plans

* maps

* blueprints

* architecture/architectural styles

* zoning laws/assessment maps

* roads & public transportation (rail and bus lines)

All tell a story of growth and development, the creation and death of neighborhoods, towns, and cities. They can help flesh out stories of migration, urban shifts, and community relations.

Government offices & agencies (local, state, national, federal); architectural firms Government-level materials are usually easy to find, but may require some creative thinking (city directories, phone books); non-government sources may be in the possession of the original or takeover firms, an architectural society or archive.

Media/News/Public Communications

* newspapers & magazines

* television & media news

* learned society publications

* broadsides and advertisements

* popular songs

* radio broadcasts (recordings and transcripts)

Valuable primary source materials for communities and cultures. May require foreign language skills. May be subject to bias and propaganda

News organizations; governments, professional and scholarly societies, anonymous individuals Financial solvency of the organization, censorship (active or passive), were copies kept and in what condition? Is access behind a paywall or subscription service (and what does membership in a group get you access to?

Literary Texts

* novels, poems, short stories, plays

* comic books, graphic novels

These are primary sources but may need to be carefully interpreted for historical purposes. These works may reflect the concerns and hopes of a time (present or future). Rely on a good, critical edition to better understand the historical time and the significance of the work.

Individual or multiple authors. Censorship, popular acceptance or rejection, printer's errors, and copyright pirates altering the work.

Adapted from: Presnell, Jenny L. The Information-Literate Historian: A Guide to Research for History Students. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. pp. 114 - 116.

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