In my last post, I discussed what primary sources are, how they differ from secondary sources, why writers need them, and then gave some examples of both historical and contemporary primary sources. Now, I’d like to talk about how to find some of these elusive sources. First, I’ll start with historical sources, then when I continue with this series, I’ll look at how to find contemporary sources.
When it comes to finding most historical primary sources, your options will include digging through a good library for archives, diary or letter collections, and speech indexes, using online government or other public document sites, or physically tracking down historical societies, national archives, or museums that have what you need. There are various ways to attack each of these.
While at the library (preferably a university library), search for your subject along with “dairies,” “correspondence” (for letters and such), or “speeches.” You will end up with collections based on era, event, or person, among other potential categories. Also, look through the archive collections for any newspapers, magazines, or old interviews. And, don’t forget to look at secondary sources, such as books, encyclopedias, or biographical dictionaries where you can gather primary sources from the author’s bibliographies or notes.
If you want to conduct most of your searching online, one good place to start is GALE research, which has hundreds of databases on just about any topic imaginable. If you’re looking for newspapers that give firsthand accounts of events or people, there are some internet sites that, for a fee, will let you view scanned newspapers. Some sites offer a free trial period before you have to subscribe. One site is Classic Newspapers. Another is Newspaper Archive. Both of these have a vast collection of historical newspapers.
A primary source you may need is photographs. To keep your costs down, try to go to museums or historical societies, which will be cheaper than commercial sites to copy an image. If you do need to use a commercial site, a couple good ones to check out are Picture History and Smithsonian Images, both of which have a nice collection of historical images.
There are several government sites which are particularly useful for finding primary sources. One is the Library of Congress, which has numerous divisions online for searching just about anything. Other good sources include firstgov, which contains information for local, state, and federal governments for a variety of topics, as well as listings for government libraries and contact information for government officials. Another site is archives.gov. This site lists national archives centers throughout the U.S., and you can view copies of U.S. historical documents right from their website.
A final online source I highly recommend is called “100 Terrific Sites to Find Primary Source History Documents.” This site has links to all of the major U.S. libraries, museums, art history storehouses, birth and death records, newspapers, various government sites, and lots more. This is an excellent starting place for primary sources.
Even after all of your library and online searching, however, you may find that you still need to actually visit some locations to get the original sources you need. Before you go, there are some great directories out there that can help guide you in the right direction.
If you need to visit a museum, a couple helpful books are the “Official Museum Directory,” which is exactly what it sounds like. This book lists thousands of museums and discusses what’s in them, how to contact them, what publications they put out, and so forth. A similar book is called “Museums of the World.”
If you’re looking for historical organizations or associations, there are books on that subject, such as the “Directory of Historical Organizations in the U.S.,” and the “American History Sourcebook.” The sourcebook lists places all over the country, like museums, universities, archives, and so forth, where you can find all kinds of primary sources.
For searching for government documents or organizations, you can start with the “U.S. Gov’t Manual,” which lists various government departments along with their contact information and what exactly the department does. You can also find out about government websites with a book called “U.S. Gov’t on the Web.”
If your library doesn’t have the books or directories you’re looking for, search online at Bookfinder. Or, if you don’t know exactly what book you need, look at the “Subject Guide to Books in Print” and that will help you narrow your search.
Well, that’s enough searching for one day! When I continue this series post, I’ll discuss how to find contemporary searches, such as looking for experts to interview.
Check back on Thursday when I will post part 1 of my interview with “cozy” mystery and historical fiction writer Darlene Franklin. I guarantee you Darlene has used some of these avenues before when searching for her primary sources!