Skip to Main Content

THEA 4321 History of Costume

course guide for THEA 4321 History of Costume


"Primary sources are the raw materials of history — original documents and objects which were created at the time under study." source: 


The following comes from U Mass Boston's Primary Sources: A Research Guide

Primary Sources are immediate, first-hand accounts of a topic, from people who had a direct connection with it. Primary sources can include:

  • Texts of laws and other original documents
  • Newspaper reports, by reporters who witnessed an event or who quote people who did
  • Speeches, diaries, letters and interviews - what the people involved said or wrote
  • Original research
  • Datasets, survey data, such as census or economic statistics
  • Photographs, video, or audio that capture an event


Secondary Sources are one step removed from primary sources, though they often quote or otherwise use primary sources. They can cover the same topic, but add a layer of interpretation and analysis. Secondary sources can include:

  • Most books about a topic
  • Analysis or interpretation of data
  • Scholarly or other articles about a topic, especially by people not directly involved
  • Documentaries (though they often include photos or video portions that can be considered primary sources)


Primary Source Types

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



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.


* 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.

Smart Searching

To quickly locate a particular type of primary source in most online catalogues use the following terms as SUBJECT rather than KEYWORD terms:





Entries for countries and regions are usually subdivided by century.  If you are looking for what is available to document general social or intellectual trends in a period search for the country's formal name (Great Britain, not "England") followed by the century designation: Great Britain 15th century.  Major events in any century will often have a subheading of their own: Great Britain World War 1914 - 1918.

You can use the subheading Sources with these time period designations as well: Hundred Years War 1339 1453 Sources

When searching in WorldCat your result list will have a set of tabs at the top, two may be of interest for primary sources:

  • Archival - used for collections of unedited primary sources for individuals, professional societies, or corporations
  • Internet - may lead to freely accessible digital collections, such as The Diaries of John Quincy Adams a Digital Collection located on the Massachussets Historical Society web site

Resources for Exploring Primary Sources


  • Essential Resources for Historical Research - Lots of great resources here, see in particular the primary sources section organized by regions.
  • First-Person Accounts - American Women: Resources from the Library of Congress - this resource includes tools to explore letters, diaries, travel accounts, journals, and other kinds of first-person accounts from the Library of Congress, American Folklife Center, National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, and others.
  • Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 - Contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves.  These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration, later renamed Work Projects Administration (WPA).  At the conclusion of the Slave Narrative project, a set of edited transcripts was assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. In 2000-2001, with major support from the Citigroup Foundation, the Library digitized the narratives from the microfilm edition and scanned from the originals 500 photographs, including more than 200 that had never been microfilmed or made publicly available.  This online collection is a joint presentation of the Manuscript and Prints and Photographs divisions of the Library of Congress.
  • Primary Sources for United States History - Collections of primary sources dealing with American history organized chronologically.
  • The National Archives (United States)



Guides to Primary Source Archives in the U.S.

Historical Newspaper Databases

Link opens in new window

Guides to Primary Sources in Europe

University Libraries

One Bear Place #97148
Waco, TX 76798-7148

(254) 710-6702