Outline of Primary Sources for History
This page serves as an index to the Library Research Guide for History and other research guides. It lists major general tool types and kinds of primary sources, giving links to major resources, links to further information in the guide and to sample HOLLIS searches.
Three tactics for finding primary sources. They are best used together.
- Find them cited in secondary sources. Valuable especially in that it gives you context. But you are limited to what your author has found, and a slight difference in perspective from your own may lead to very different sources. An essential starting point.
- Direct search in catalogs and databases, for example in HOLLIS, HathiTrust, Early English Books Online.
- Find them in bibliographies (and their equivalents for archives and manuscripts) which are lists of printed (or manuscript) sources) sometimes annotated. A less used but often very fruitful method. They are often produced contemporary with the era of interest. Example. Using them is a two-step process: find your source in a bibliography, then look it up in HOLLIS; or ASK US.
HOLLIS Library Catalog searches not only books but also archives/manuscripts (including a full text search of digitized finding aids (not all are digitized), films, images, and other material (Example). Any pertinent item produced during your era may be a primary source, but certain kinds of primary sources, including originally unpublished sources such as letters and diaries published later, have particular terms attached to their Subject terms in a HOLLIS record. Change Any field to Subject for cleanest results.
- --Caricatures and cartoons (just search Caricatures)
- --Description and travel
- --Notebooks, sketchbooks, etc.
- --Oral history
- --Personal narratives (refers to accounts of wars and diseases only)
- --Pictorial works (Books consisting mostly of pictures)
- --Sources (usually refers to collections of published primary sources)
Archives OR Correspondence OR Diaries OR Manuscripts OR Sources OR Narratives OR Interviews OR "Oral history" (as Subject)
Digital Libraries/Collections may be very general like the full text searchable HathiTrust, Internet Archive, Google Books, which contain all sorts of books and periodicals (Internet Archive also with audio and visual material) and the national catalog: Digital Public Library of America. For local topics, the lists of digital libraries by US state are valuable.
- They may be specialized by language and/or era (Early English Books Online, Gallica), by topic (Travelers in the Middle East), or geographically (Digital Commonwealth).
- More examples and tools for finding more listed in this guide.
Document collections. Primary source documents are often gathered up and published as printed books or in microfilm (reels of 35 mm film viewed through a machine) rather than digitally. They may consist of books, archival material, oral histories, in fact most of the kinds listed below. Vast resources exist in microfilm.
- Find them in HOLLIS and WorldCat by using special Subject terms. Example.
- Tools for finding them listed in this guide.
Find lists of publications (primary and/or secondary) on your topic in HOLLIS. Bibliography must be searched as a Subject.
If you find an older article or book in a bibliography, you can use the Cited Reference Search in Web of Science find more recent articles by seeing who has cited it. If you have a bibliography of primary sources, then the Web of Science can be used both to find secondary sources that cite a specified primary source and the response in the 20th century periodical literature. See Searching the Citation Indexes (Web of Science).
Kinds of Primary Sources
- Archives and Manuscripts
- Contemporary Language
- Country, State, and Local information
- Government Documents
- Gray Literature
- Literary Works
- New Sources
- Personal Accounts
- Public Opinion
- Sound Recordings
Archives and Manuscripts comprise originally unpublished writings or records produced by an individual (personal papers) or an organization in their activities. Organizations producing archives may be governments (national, state, local), NGOs, corporations, universities. They may reside with their producing bodies or may have been added to an archival repository. You typically have to go to the repository to use them.
- We give instructions for finding them at Harvard, the Boston area, nation and world-wide in the Library Research Guide for Finding Manuscripts and Archival Collections.
- Sometimes full or partial copies are published as printed books, microfilm, or online (see Digital Libraries and Document Collections, above)
- Many US Government archival collections, including much State Department material, has been digitized or microfilmed. Tools for finding them listed in this guide
- Remember to use the proper Subject terms (Library of Congress and Medical) as well as your keywords
- You can limit by date range. The Subject term Early Works to 1800 retrieves old books republished post-1800 (new editions): Sample HOLLIS Library Catalog search.
- You can limit to anything published in a country or a US state in HOLLIS and WorldCat
- Instructions for using HOLLIS and WorldCat
- Dictionaries indicate contemporary understanding of a word. Sample HOLLIS search.
- Subject dictionaries and encyclopedias can show how terms were understood at a certain time. Sample HOLLIS search.
- Major American English dictionaries listed in the Library Research Guide for American Studies.
- Annual country reference publication series
- State and Local Government documents,
- Travelers’ writings, and guidebooks.
- City directories which, besides the alphabetical listing of residents, usually have a terminal section with a government directory and listing of local businesses and agencies by activity.
Data The Digital Scholarship Support Group offers faculty, students, and staff interested in incorporating digital methods into their teaching and research a single point of entry to the many resources available at Harvard. Beginner's Guide to Locating and Using Numeric Data.
Government Documents (National, State, Local) are publications produced for public distribution (unlike archival sources). We give instructions on finding them in this guide United States, US foreign relations, US state and local, and foreign government documents.
- Many US government publications are available full text in HathiTrust. In Advanced Catalog search put Author: "United States" and a department/agency name if desired.
- Bibliographies of government documents for your time period are often useful guides. HOLLIS Library Catalog (Note Subject term: Government publications.
Gray Literature refers to reports produced and published by governmental or non-governmental agencies (think tanks, research institutes) but not published via the usual commercial or academic channels. Think tank publications often offer the views of particular ideological groups. They may be studies of policy (often called working papers) or technical studies (called technical reports)
- Laws: Foreign, US national and state, city ordinances -- HOLLIS Library Catalog search (Note OR)
- Case law: Appeals court opinions -- HOLLIS Library Catalog search
- Trial transcripts or accounts -- HOLLIS Library Catalog search
The Law School librarians are the experts (Law School Library guides), be we have a legal history guide to get started. It covers the legal periodical literature (Law reviews), court cases, and legislation for the United States and, to a lesser extent Britain.
In HOLLIS the following terms are found on literary works and works of literary scholarship.
- American literature -- Korean American authors.
- Authors, Korean
- Korean American literature -- United States.
- Korean Americans – Fiction (or Drama, or Poetry) refers to literary works
- Korean Americans -- In literature refers to literary scholarship
- Korean Americans -- Literary Collections
Sources for literary scholarship are listed in the research guide: Literary Research in Harvard Libraries.
Maps. The Harvard Map Collection contains one of the world’s finest collections of maps. Although their atlases are in HOLLIS, many of their individual maps are not, so a visit is useful. As well as political and topographic maps, they have numerous thematic maps of demographic, social, and economic other features. More information in this guide.
Material. Much historical evidence resides in material objects. Find what Harvard has with a form/genre search in HOLLIS (HOLLIS Library Catalog Example - note that we exclude Visual in the search). We have a draft (unfinished) guide to American material culture. Links to Harvard museums.
- Tools for finding newspapers and newspaper articles listed in the Guide for Newspapers and Newspaper Indexes.
- Tools for finding broadcast news and newsreels in this guide
- Magazines: Aimed at a popular audience (Tools for finding them listed in this guide)
- Academic -Disciplinary: Aimed at a academic/scientific audience (Tools for finding them listed in this guide)
- Professional/Trade: Aimed at particular trades or professions (Tools for finding them listed in this guide) (HOLLIS Library Catalog Example, note Resource type: Journals)
- Newspapers: See News Sources.
Tools are available for finding the circulation figures, audiences and political orientations of many newspapers and other periodicals, and the histories and characteristics of magazines.
Personal accounts. These are first person narratives recalling or describing a person’s life and opinions. These include diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, and when delivered orally and recorded: Oral histories and Interviews.
- Tools for finding them listed in this guide: Personal Accounts -- Oral History.
- The lists of digital libraries by US state have many collections with oral histories.
- HOLLIS Library Catalog search example
Public Opinion. Surveys are available that gauge public opinion on numerous topics. Instructions for finding them in this guide. Sample HOLLIS Library Catalog search. For the opinion of a particular group of people use the Subject term: Attitudes - Sample HOLLIS Library Catalog search.
Categories of sound recordings.
- Music. Music Research Guide
- Spoken word
- Radio Tools listed in this guide.
- Television Tools listed in this guide.
- Sound effects, animal sounds.
Sound recordings are often available, physically or online, only via local repositories. To find these, search in WorldCat Advanced Search. For Limit type to: choose Sound Recordings. If there are too many musical recordings, enter mt:nsr (code for non musical recordings) in a Keyword field, add NOT audiobooks. Thus,
Document type Sound Recordings can be further refined by placing, for example, Speeches in a Subject field. For a list of these genre/form terms.
DPLA (Digital Public Library of America) searches the online offerings of numerous repositories. Do a search and then refine to Type: Sound.
Statistics. Most countries publish series of demographic, economic and other statistics. Statistics are also gathered by non-governmental agencies, including international organizations. Tools for finding them. Sample HOLLIS Library Catalog search
Textbooks Tools for finding them.