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Primary Resources and Research

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What are primary sources?

Primary sources are the “raw data of scholarship” and vary widely depending upon the academic discipline.<ref>Marilyn Lutzker, Research Projects for College Students (Westport: Greenwood Press, Inc., 1988), 37.</ref> In the History and the Humanities, primary sources are usually original materials or testimonies created contemporaneous to the event or individual being researched. <ref>Richard Pearce-Moses. "Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology." Society of American Archivists. (Accessed January 7, 2010.)</ref> In the Social Sciences and Natural Sciences, primary sources usually consist of data gathered from empirical studies such as experiments, surveys, and observations. Primary sources are created by persons or organizations who witness an event as it unfolds. Therefore, these sources contain first-hand accounts from those with direct knowledge and experience of a particular historical event, figure, or original experiments.

Examples of primary sources might include records, unpublished reports, letters, memorandums, photographs and images, video footage, diaries and journals, speeches, maps, statistics, information found in newspapers, and artifacts. Primary sources can also take shape well after an event occurred in the form of autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories.

It is important to remember that there is often a fine line between primary sources and secondary sources. The format of a resource (i.e. book, article, newspater) is not the only characteristic that determines whether it is primary or secondary. It is important to apply the evaluation criteria below in determining the nature of a resource.

What are secondary sources?

Secondary sources are usually at least one phase removed from the time period or event being researched. Secondary sources do not include firsthand knowledge or experience, but instead they include commentaries, interpretations, and analysis of events, figures, and data. Secondary sources often draw on the meaning of primary sources in order to support an author’s hypothesis or point of view. Secondary sources are typically produced by subject experts who submit their work for editing and review prior to publication.

Examples of secondary sources include:

  • books
  • articles
  • biographies
  • literary criticisms
  • book reviews
  • scholarly journal articles

What are tertiary sources?

Tertiary sources are reference materials that provide a current overview or up-to-date background information on a topic in the form of summaries, definitions, statistics, and established facts collected and condensed from primary and secondary sources. Tertiary sources often index primary and secondary sources as well.

Examples of tertiary sources include:

  • Encyclopedias
  • Dictionaries
  • Almanacs
  • Bibliographies
  • Atlases
  • Yearbooks
  • Gazetteers

Tips for conducting thoughtful original research

Remember that research is a process. It takes a significant amount of time and planning to conduct thoughtful research. In the beginning of the process, you may feel anxious and unsure where to start. Begin with tertiary sources such as encyclopedias: obtain background information necessary to develop a basic understanding of a topic or subject. Then, review secondary sources to see what subject experts are saying about your topic.

  • Tertiary sources:
    Obtain the necessary information to understand the overall context of a topic. Look at the hard facts and begin to form your own perspective.
  • Secondary sources:
    See what subject experts say about a topic and absorb their perspectives into your own body of knowledge. Evaluate their arguments: how do they use and interpret facts and primary sources? How does a particular point of view relate to what you already know about a topic? Examine the authors bibliography or works cited page to help determine other sources that are available on your topic.
  • Primary sources:
    Scholars and students turn to primary sources for evidence that supports their hypotheses. Primary sources help answer questions about what happened and why. When researching primary sources, think about what you already know and how primary sources relate to, support, or refute that information. Evaluate primary sources using the same criteria and skills used to evaluate any piece of information. Pose the following questions to help make sense of primary sources:

  • What is it? What format does it take?
  • Who created it? What was his/her qualifications and relationship to the subject, event, or figure being researched?
  • When was it created? Is the resource timely to your topic?
  • Where was it created?
  • Under what circumstances was it created?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • Are there other primary sources like this one?
  • What other information do we need to know in order to make sense of this source?
  • How have other scholars and students used this source in their research?
  • How does this particular resource support my research topic?

(Adapted from DoHistory)<ref>Film Study Center, Harvard University. "DoHistory." (Accessed January 12, 2010).</ref>

Where are primary sources located?

Archive Repository Directory
Primary sources are located in archive repositories, libraries, museums, and other cultural institutions. Archives in particular are dedicated to collecting primary sources that document their parent organization, a geographic region, a broad theme or subject, or a specific historical event. The link below is to a worldwide directory of archival repositories.

Online Digital Collections

  • Can primary sources be digital?

Yes, materials in digital format can be primary sources. Libraries, archives, and other cultural institutions have dedicated vast resources to digitize primary source collections. The purpose of such digitization projects is to make rare, original sources available instantly to researchers worldwide. Though some intrinsic qualities—or the unique characteristics of the original source—are lost to digitization, the content and meaning of the source remains intact. Thus, a digital surrogate serves as an accurate representation of the original resource. Moreover, primary sources are increasingly born digital; such material was not originally produced in print or analog format. Born digital sources include materials such as email and digital photographs.

The compilation of digital resources below are ideal for original resources in history and the humanities, though there are several resources which may also be of value to the social sciences.

American History Digital Collections

American Archives: Docoments of the American Revolution
Northern Illinois University Libraries’ American Archives: Documents of the American Revolution, 1774-1776, contains thousands of documents from the revolutionary period. Areas of documentation include the economy; key people, events and institutions; British loyalists; the military and battles fought; and politics. Documents have been marked up in HTML for easy access and presentation.

American Memory
The Library of Congress’s American Memory collection consists of America’s most important primary sources. It is an extensive resource encompassing many aspects of American history, society, and culture. Several topics include: African American history, Native American history, presidents, religion, sports, literature, performing arts, folklore, architecture, and the environment.

Making of America
University of Michigan’s Making of America contains digital reproductions of books and journals vital to understanding the social history of America. The collection documents Antebellum America through reconstruction. According to the repository homepage, the collection contains approximately 10,000 books and 50,000 journal articles. In particular, the collection contains thorough documentation of education, psychology, history, sociology, religion, and science and technology during the time period.

National Archives and Records Administration
The National Archives and Records Administration has created numerous online digital exhibits. Exhibits are thematic in nature and not only include selected primary sources but also commentaries, captions, and explanations. Featured exhibits include: Documented Rights, which depicts Civil Rights in the United States; The Deadly Virus, which documents the influenza epidemic of 1918; Every Four Years: Electing a President; and Running for Office: Candidates, Campaigns, and the Cartoons of Clifford Berryman. There are many more wonderful exhibits included on NARA’s website that demonstrate the depth of the federal government’s holdings.

Rutger University's Oral History Archives
Rutgers University’s Oral History Archives contains interviews documenting World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War from individuals who experienced these conflicts first hand. The archive includes interviews with Americans who served the United States war efforts at home and abroad.

World History and Research Library Digital Collections

Brown University
Brown University Library’s Center for Digital Initiatives is vast in documentation of World History. Many of Brown Library’s signature archival and special collections are digitized including Cultural Correspondence, Latin American Travelogues, and Napoleonic Satires—to name only a few.

Columbia University
Columbia University Libraries has several prominent collections documenting different aspects of World history, as well as online digital exhibits that are curated and include commentaries and explanations of primary sources. Digital Collections include Digital South Asia Library, Historical Corporate Reports, Greene and Greene Architectural Records, John Jay Papers, and Notable New Yorkers—to name only a few.

Cornell University
Cornell University’s Windows on the Past contains 29 thematic digital collections. Of particular interest are the History of the Left in Latin America collection; the Bolivian Digital Pamphlet collection; and the New York State Historical Collection.

Harvard University
Harvard University’s A selection of Web-Accessible Collections contains multiple digital collections documenting various locations and aspects of history. Several collections include Botanical and Cultural Images of Eastern Asia, 1907-1927; Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics; Holocaust Rescue and Relief; and the Islamic Heritage Project.

New York Public Library
New York Public library offers numerous digital collections vital to understanding American and world history. Most collections are thematic in nature; some draw materials from several collections, while others are single collections digitized in their entirety. The above link leads to the digital collections homepage, which includes brief descriptions of each collection and direct links to each resource.

Princeton University
Princeton University Library’s Digital Collections contains numerous digital collections of historical value such as Digital Maps and Geographic Data, English Restoration Plays, Poetry and Other Works, and Nineteenth Century Sheet Music Collections.

University of Iowa
The University of Iowa’s Digital Librarycontains approximately 300,000 digital images. Though many collections are specific to Iowa history, the library contains invaluable sources documenting politics and government; business and industry; multicultural groups; science and geography; and book and printing history.

European History Digital Collections

British Library
The British Library’s Online Gallery contains numerous digital collections, which mainly document British history, but also European and World history to a lesser extent.

Creating French Culture
Creating French Culture is a collaborative exhibit by the Library of Congress and Bibliothèque nationale de France. The exhibit documents French culture from the time of Charlemagne through the twentieth century.

Digital Scriptorium
Columbia University Libraries’ Digital Scriptorium contains digitized images of medieval manuscripts from all over the world. The project was collaborative with the goal of making rare manuscripts available in a central digital repository.

Euro Docs
Produced by Brigham Young University, Euro Docs is a compilation of various digital collections documenting European history. The various collections are arranged on a wiki for easy access and navigation.

Europeana contains approximately six million digital images documenting European culture. It includes paintings, drawings, maps, photos, books, newspapers, letters, audios, and videos from museums, archives, and libraries worldwide. A simple registration is required for access.

Exploring the French Revolution
George Washington University’s Exploring the French Revolution contains 12 topical essays, 250 images, 350 documents, 13 songs, and 13 maps documenting the French Revolution.

The German Propaganda Archive
The German Propaganda Archive by Calvin College documents the propaganda machine of Nazi Germany. It contains essays, posters, photographs and more.

Italy Life Under Fascism
University of Wisconsin’s Italy Life Under Fascism exhibit contains selected items from the Fry collection. The exhibit contains materials from 1922 through 1945. It documents areas such as propaganda, youth organizations, culture, and the opposition.

Memory of the Netherlands
Memory of the Netherlands contains 438,572 objects from 84 collections of 78 institutions documenting the history of the Netherlands. Areas of documentation include history and society, geography and environment, art and culture, and communication and media. The site also contains digital exhibits.

Nuremburg Trials Project
Harvard Law School’s Nuremburg Trials Projectcontains extensive documentation of the Nuremberg trials. According to the archive’s homepage, it contains nearly one million pages documenting the international prosecution of Nazi military and political leaders.

Posters of Conflict
The Imperial War Museum’s Posters of Conflict documents social, political, and cultural situations in European nations at war with one another. The collection contains posters from the First World War through more recent conflicts.

Hispanic and Latin American History Digital Collections

Bracero History Archive
The Bracero History Archive documents the 20th century Bracero work program between Mexico and the United States. It includes photographs, oral histories, and texts. Users need to complete a simple registration in order to access the collection.

Building the Panama Canal
The Smithsonian Institute’s, Building the Panama Canal exhibit documents the reasoning, planning, processes, difficulties, and the ultimate success that went into creating the Panama Canal.

Cuban Heritage Collection
The University of Miami’s digital Cuban Heritage Collection contains several different digitized collections and exhibits documenting the history of Cuba. The various collections include oral histories, photographs, posters, and documents portraying a wide range of Cuban society and culture.

Latin American Pamphlet Digital Collection
The Latin American Pamphlet Digital Collection at Harvard University’s Widener Library contains hundreds of digitized images from the 5,000 pamphlets in the original collection. The collection is updated as content continues to be digitized. The resource is unique to students and scholars and it documents the political, social, economic, and cultural histories of Latin American countries during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Luis Angel Arango – Museum and Collection Online
The Luis Angel Arango – Museum and Collection Online contains unique exhibits documenting the history of Colombia. Areas of documentation include art; numismatic artifacts such as coins and bank notes; musical instruments; and postal history.

Mexico: From Empire to Revolution
The Getty’s exhibit entitled, Mexico: From Empire to Revolution, documents Mexican history from the mid-19th century through the early 20th century.

Puerto Ricans in the U.S.: Affirming Identity, Citizenship and Nationhood
Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños’ Puerto Ricans in the U.S.: Affirming Identity, Citizenship and Nationhood contains extensive documentation of Puerto Rican living in the United States—specifically New York—from 1898 through 1998. All materials were digitized from various collections located in Centro’s archival and library holdings.

University of Texas Libraries
The University of Texas Libraries has created several rich exhibits and digital collections documenting the history of Latin populations throughout the Americas. Each exhibit and collection showcases materials from the Benson Latin American Collection. Of particular interest are the U.S. Latino & Latina WWII Oral History Project; Albel Briquet Photograph Collection; and Early Maps at the Benson Collection.

New York State and New York City Digital Collections

New York State Archives
The New York State Archives has compiled numerous digital collections documenting various aspects of New York State history. Collections document the following areas: Business and Labor; Environment and Landscape; Legal history; Military history; People, Groups, and Cultures; Politics; and Transportation.

Museum of the City of New York
The Museum of the City of New York’s Byron Collection contains digital images on a variety of themes documenting New York City from 1890 through 1942.

New York City Department of Records
The New York City Department of Records digital image gallery contains some of New York City’s most popular image. The images are organized into 16 different thematic categories including landmarks, housing, mayors, transportation, street scenes, and parades.

September 11 Digital Archive
The 9/11 Digital Archive documents the tragic events of September 11, 2001. It includes approximately 150,000 digital items including emails, oral histories, and images.

Childhood in the Bronx
Lehman College’s Childhood in the Bronx digital collection is based on an exhibit originally showcased at Lehman College’s Art Gallery in 1986. The archive includes images by Georgeen Comerford and vintage photographs from The Bronx Institutes Archives. It also includes oral history sound clips. The exhibit documents childhood in the Bronx from the early 20th century through the 1980s.

Resources For Teachers

Included below are hyper-links to several teaching resources, which were created to assist educators in integrating primary sources into their lessons. Most of the below resources include lesson plans and student assessment questions based upon selected primary sources.

Electronic Schoolhouse
Electronic Schoolhouse is a joint project by the New York State Archives and the Archives Partnership Trust with funding from Time Warner, Inc. The resource is bilingual and contains translations in both English and Spanish. It consists of instructional videos, selected primary sources documenting Hispanic populations in New York state, lesson plans, and assessment questions and projects. Selected primary sources document several themes including: bilingual education, biography, census, civil rights, culture, education, government, immigration and migration, labor unions, Latin America, migrants, urbanization, and women.

Library of Congress
Created by the Library of Congress, this resource contains lesson plans, instructional materials, selected primary resources, and recommendations on how to include primary sources in the classroom.

National Archives and Records Administration
This resource was prepared by the National Archives and Records Administration for educators and students. It includes useful lesson plans, ideas for incorporating primary sources into the classroom, instructional videos, research activities, selected primary sources, and information about using the many National Archives repositories throughout the country.

Hostos Library Databases Containing Primary Sources

African-American History Online
African American History Online is rich in tertiary, secondary, and primary sources documenting the history of African Americans. The database contains numerous encyclopedia and dictionary entries defining particular aspects and movements in African American history; while various articles, book chapters, and other secondary sources offer analysis and criticism on those same events and issues. Primary sources include documents, unpublished reports, letters, speeches, laws, court cases and opinions, images, videos, maps, and charts. Popular themes that are heavily documented include the Civil Rights movement, popular culture, racial violence, Reconstruction, segregation and integration, and slavery and abolition.

American History Online
Produced and maintained by the same company that created African-American History Online, Facts on File, this database is more inclusive and broadly documents American History. It is rich with tertiary sources, secondary sources, and primary sources that cover popular topics such as: the economy, exploration, immigration, revolts and rebellions, social movements, the U.S. Constitution, and war. Primary sources include documents, unpublished reports, letters, speeches, laws, court cases and opinions, images, videos, maps, and charts.

American History in Video
This database contains a wealth of video footage documenting American history in the form of raw archival recordings from NASA and NARA, news clips, and documentaries from PBS and the History Channel. The database includes over 2000 hours of footage and approximately 5,000 titles.

Black Thought and Culture
This collection documents black leaders in American history, politics, music, literature, the arts and athletics from the earliest of times through the present. The database contains 100,000 pages of both secondary and primary sources that document black cultural leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Angela Davis, Thurgood Marshall, Jesse Jackson, and many others. Secondary sources include monographs, essays, and articles. Some primary sources include speeches, letters, pamphlets, and interviews.

GPO Access
This database was created and is maintained by the Government Printing Office and consists of primary sources originating from the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches of the United States government. Legislative sources include: conference reports, congressional bills, congressional records, public and private laws, statutes, and United States Codes. Executive primary sources include the Code of Federal Regulations, the Federal Register, and executive publications. Judiciary primary sources include trial reports and court opinions at the local, state, and federal levels.

Historical New York Times
This database contains full text articles from the New York Times from the publication’s beginning in 1851 through 2006. Primary sources include images, articles, editorials, and letters to the editor that offer a contemporaneous point of view on certain historical events, issues, and figures.

Law Library Microfilm Collection Digital
This resource is provided by a library consortium that serves the legal field. The collection contains thousand of digitized court cases at the local, state, federal, and international levels.

Milestone Documents in American History
This database contains tertiary, secondary, and primary sources that document events and figures critical in shaping American history. It consists of reference and secondary sources such as encyclopedia entries, biographies, articles, analyses, and criticisms. Primary sources include letters, speeches, press releases, audios, legislation, and reports.

Compiled by Baruch College, City University of New York, this resource contains raw demographic data and statistics documenting New York City. Areas of documentation include population and geography; business activity; labor force, employment and unemployment; income and taxes; fiscal data; housing; education; culture; and health.

Social Explorer
This resource portrays demographic information about the United States in the form of interactive maps. The site monitors such trends as population, age, race, gender, religious affiliation, education, employment, income, and housing beginning in the 18th century onward.

Women and Social Movements
The database contains a plethora of reference, secondary, and primary sources that document Women in United States history from 1600 through the present. The collection details every imaginable aspect of women studies. It is especially rich in primary sources and contains formats not typically available in online databases, such as: advertisements, broadsides, cartoons, diaries, drawings, flyers, oral histories, postcards, and programs. Also available are more common resources such as government reports, letters, and interview transcripts.

Primary Source Collections at Hostos Community College Archives

Arts and Culture ephemera and posters
This collection documents the history of the Hostos Arts and Culture program from 1983 through the present. It contains ephemera, posters, and programs used to promote various shows in the visual and performing arts.

Collection on Pat Oldham
The Collection on Pat Oldham documents the 1983 campaign to reinstate Pat Oldham, former Professor of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Hostos, to the college faculty with tenure. The collection consists of photographs documenting several mass protests supporting the cause, letters from University faculty and administrators to Hostos President Flora Mancuso Edwards and CUNY Chancellor Joseph Murphy, and articles from the PSC CUNY Clarion.

Magda Vasillov photographs and negatives
The Magda Vasillov photographs and negatives include some of the earliest images documenting Hostos Community College. Included are negatives which depict the activities during the first two years of the college's history, 1970-1973. Also included is Vasillov's, Faces of Hostos photograph exhibit, which was displayed at the Bronx Museum in 1980.

Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art records
The Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art (MoCHA) was born from the rise of multiculturalism in 1985, as an alternative museum in SoHo that showcased the art of under-represented Hispanic and Latino artists. MoCHA operated under the umbrella of Friends of Puerto Rico, Inc. (FOPR), a non-profit organization founded and incorporated in 1956. From 1974 to 1984, FOPR administered the Cayman Gallery, which in its lifetime was the only non-commercial Hispanic arts center in the mainstream of American Art. Despite its short existence, MoCHA helped launch the career of numerous artists who became successful in the 1990s. After it closed in 1990, its archival records were taken to Hostos Community College, City University of New York, in an effort to preserve them. These invaluable records document the history of the institution and the early careers of many of the artists it exhibited. Materials include exhibition and artist files, recorded symposia of public programs organized by the museum, and exhibition catalogs.

On the Job collection
The collection consists of approximately 65 silver gelatin photographs documenting life on East 149th Street in the South Bronx neighborhood of New York City. The exhibit depicts the many businesses, restaurants, and shops that lined the street’s sidewalks and surrounding areas in 1986. Through his camera lens, Pablo Delano tells the story of a pride filled neighborhood devoted to hard work and community success.



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