Primary Sources in the Performing Arts

Primary sources for the performing arts come in a wide array of formats. Unlike other areas of study, a greater percentage of sources for performance fall under the category of ephemera, which is material that was not produced to be retained for any significant amount of time. Examples of ephemera include playbills, posters, and publicity photographs. Formats outside of ephemera are more like the kinds you find in other disciplines, such as archival collections or printed books.

This guide is intended to give you a sense of the types of primary sources that are useful when researching the performing arts. While it is more broadly applicable, its focus is on the kinds of sources collected by the Harvard Library and includes tips for finding material here.

Relevant material can be found in many libraries at Harvard, but the bulk is found in the Harvard Theatre Collection at Houghton Library. Material related to musical performance can also be found in the Isham Memorial Library’s collections, but there are strong performance collections throughout Harvard Library, including the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America and the Harvard University Archives. Published primary sources, such as play texts, as well as secondary sources like biographies or scholarly works, are generally located in the circulating collections at Widener and Lamont libraries.