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High School Guide

Steps to finding Primary Sources

Once you do your preliminary research and understand the background of your topic, including the key people, places, events, and dates involved, you can start to think about finding primary sources.  Ask yourself: 

  1. What kind of information am I seeking? (Public, private, personal?)
  2. What documents would have been creating during this event? (Government documents, newspapers, diaries?)
  3. Which perspective am I looking for? (Civilian, soldier, general, president, enemy?)
When you can imagine what sorts of sources will meet your  needs, you can start looking for them. 
The easiest way to find primary sources is in the footnotes and bibliographies of your secondary sources.  You may also find reference to documents or other sources created during the course of events, or that were otherwise part of events, and you should locate these as well.
Other ways to find primary sources include:
  • searching the library catalogue for the names of involved people as Author.
  • searching the library catalogue for your topic plus words like 'memoir', 'diary', 'personal account', etc.
  • use a library  database of primary sources on your topic, or an online archive (documents, newspapers, etc.)
  • use a free online database of primary sources on the topic
  • searching google for your topic plus a word or phrase to describe what you are trying to find
  • more information can be found on the History How To: Primary Sources subject guide.
  • as well, each subject guide has a list of recommended primary sources.

Examining Primary Sources

It's important to question your primary sources, as a first step to evaluating them for accuracy, bias, and usefulness.  

Questions to ask:

  • What:  What is this source? What are its physical characteristics? 
  • Who: Who wrote this letter? Who took this photo? Who preserved it? 
  • When: When was this source created? When was it discovered, or published? (Consider 'when' questions also in terms of the context of the event you are researching, too.) 
  • Where: Where was this created? On the battlefield or safe at home? 
  • How: How did this source come to survive?  How is it presented - was it published or re-published? was it edited? 
  • Why:  Why was this source created? Is it a personal letter or diary, or was it created by the government?  Was it created in the process of doing business? 
The answers to these questions may be obvious, or less apparent, but considering them will help you determine the authenticity of the source, as well as discern any bias in the sources. 

Evaluating Primary Sources

Another way to look at primary sources is to evaluate them according to the standards of Authority, Accuracy, Accessibility, Purpose, and Bias.  These standards can be applied to any source, primary or secondary, and they are very useful in determining the usefulness of a primary source.

  • Authority:  Who created this source?  What was that person's involvement? How does the author know these details? Was that person present at those events, and if so, in what role?  Where does this information come from: personal experiences, research, data gathered by others?  
  • Accuracy: How accurate is this source, if I compare it to other first hand acccounts? If I compare it to second hand accounts? 
  • Accessibility: Where did this source come from: a library, an archives, the web?  How trustworthy is the source? Was it edited? How did it survive? 
  • Purpose: Why was this source created? Why was it later published?  Was it meant to be kept private or was it intended for publication? 
  • Bias: Every document is biased, to some extent, by the point of view of its creator. Some documents are heavily biased, on purpose (speeches, propaganda, political cartoons).  What bias do you discern in the source, and where did it come from? Did it serve a purpose or was it accidental?