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ASIA/HISTORY 387: World War II in Asia and the Pacific

About Primary Sources

Primary sources are first-hand accounts of an event or period of time created by participants or observers.  There are many kinds of primary sources including texts (letters, diaries, government reports, newspaper accounts, novels, autobiographies), images (photographs, paintings, advertisements, posters), artifacts (buildings, clothing, sculpture, coins) and audio/visual (songs, oral history interviews, films). 

Primary sources:
  • It’s OVERWHELMING! Primary sources are literally anything that were created at the time of the event or period of study, and haven't gone through secondary analysis.
  • Includes letters, diaries, correspondence; images; government documents, decrees; newspaper articles; etc.
  • Published vs. unpublished sources; magazines and newspapers vs. letters and diaries. Who is the audience and how does that impact what the source tells you?
  • To watch out for when doing primary source research:
  • Who created the document, and for what purpose? How might their political viewpoints impact the document, and how do you account for this in the paper? Photographs: who took the photo, for what organization; why did they take it, what was the audience, why is it famous?

Searching for primary sources:

  • Keeping track of the language of the time (“Great War” vs. just “war” vs. WWI)
  • Target your searches. What were the main events, people, or places surrounding your topic? (For example: a specific war, treaty, law; leader, revolutionary)
  • Look at your secondary sources. Are they citing a primary source that could be useful to you? These will lead you to fuller repositories.
  • Ask yourself what you are trying to illustrate. Or, what will help you to answer your research question?
  • Example: What were everyday citizens’ feelings about the fall of the Berlin Wall? [Interviews, newspaper accounts, diaries, letters]

Library Databases

These are easy to find and contain reliable, quality resources. When searching full text, you must use the words of the TIME. For example, you cannot search WWI if looking for newspapers from that time - it was not called WWI until WWII happened! You'll have to try things like "Great War" or even just search "war" and use the time period limiters on the side.

Primary Source Digital Collections

Government documents provide an excellent look into the inner workings of political situations, from the perspective of governing bodies. They reveal arguments or rationale behind decisions, messaging intended to sway the public a particular way, and more. Further, they might collect information about the population of a time (census records, tax records) and reveal the bureaucratic inner-workings of societal functions.

Research institutes, universities, museums, and archival repositories hold archival collections that shed light on particular people and events. More and more of these collections are digitized for public access.

National or country archives contain sources that document the history of that countries; these resources are include a multitude of formats: government documents, images, personal papers, and much more.

In addition to general government archives, sometimes specific agencies have their own archival collections. It might be helpful to target these collections to search for primary sources. When reading your secondary sources, pay attention to the agencies involved.

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