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Historical Methods: How to Use Primary Sources

Successfully Using Primary Sources

  • Start with a broad topic.
  • Look at secondary sources (reference books or articles, for example) for overviews of the broad topic.
  • Also look at the footnotes and bibliographies of helpful secondary sources; they may reference primary material that you can locate and use.
  • Look at the available primary sources that somehow relate to your broad topic—speeches from the time period, published journals by individuals who took part, etc.
  • Form an idea for your focused topic and thesis statement after reading these available primary and secondary sources.
  • Do not form a narrow research topic of something that sounds interesting and then try to find primary documents to fit.
  • If you’re having trouble finding primary sources, consider adjusting or broadening your topic.
  • Once you find primary sources on your topic, you will have to read them carefully, draw conclusions, and interpret them yourself. Reading a planter’s account of the day the troops marched across his land (primary source) is very different than reading an account of the entire battle (a secondary source) by a historian who has spent years synthesizing many sources into one cohesive story. The planter may only tell you about the crops and livestock he lost, not the political ramifications or what this means to history.
  • If you are looking for a book or article that gives an interpretation of your topic, or discusses effects or causes, you may actually need a secondary source.

Primary Sources Research Paper Guide

More Guides!

Primary Sources on the Web: Finding, Evaluating, and Using

From the American Library Association's Reference and User Services Association, this guide is designed to help students find, evaluate, and use primary sources available through online archives and libraries. 

Keyword Searching

Combine keywords relating to your topic with keywords indicating a primary source. For example, search for "Civil War And personal narratives" or "Dust Bowl AND letters."

Think about the time period you’re researching and use appropriate keywords.

  • For example, you won’t find newspaper articles from World War II about post traumatic stress disorder because they didn’t use that term. But you could find articles on combat fatigue, a term they used then.
  • If you’re looking for documents from ancient Egypt, you might have more luck searching “Ancient Egypt AND inscriptions” than books or diaries.

As you enter your keywords, consider whether primary sources are really going to give you the information you’re looking for.

  • For example, you decide to do a paper on the effects of the Columbine shootings on gun legislation. You go to a database or a book to look for primary source documents on the Columbine shootings. You find eyewitness accounts of the shootings and editorials written in April 1999 speculating about the causes. For a discussion of the effects of the shooting on legislation, you may need a secondary source from ten years later, which analyzes what has happened over time.
  • When you want an analysis of a historical event or discussion of effects, that may best be found in a secondary source.

Analyzing Primary Sources