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Finding Primary Sources

Assistance with locating primary source material within and outside the WSU Libraries.

Introduction and Tips

This guide will help you discover primary sources for your research. It includes links to relevant library databases, instructions on how to search for primary sources in Search It and elsewhere, and highlights what primary sources might be useful for your work.

To start, here are some QUICK TIPS:

  • If you cannot decide what type of sources to use, look at your secondary sources first. What types of primary sources are the researchers using to make their arguments? (Letters, photographs, etc.) Looking at the reference lists can tell you where to find primary sources.
  • Library databases are great because they contain accurate, reliable sources, are often cited, digitized to a high quality, etc. BUT:
  • There are NUMEROUS archival repositories that are free and open for you to use without using the library website. Think about looking in a country's national archives; state historical society websites; museums dedicated to a particular time period; archives dedicated to particular populations, and more. If in doubt about whether these are "real" places - just ask! (Here are a few examples):

What Are Primary Sources? What Are Secondary Sources?

Primary sources are the first-hand accounts of an event or period of time created by participants or observers. Primary sources can be published, or unpublished and may be available in a variety of formats, such as texts (letters, diaries, government reports, newspaper accounts, autobiographies), images (photographs, paintings, advertisements, posters), artifacts (buildings, clothing, sculpture, coins) and audio/visual (songs, oral history interviews, documentaries).

Secondary sources analyze primary sources and other secondary sources to make an argument or create a summary of an event or time period. They provide an analysis of a topic by those who have studied and written about it.  Examples of secondary sources are scholarly articles and books.

Tertiary sources include reference resources such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, and handbooks. These can provide background information (timelines, major events and people of a time period) on a subject and may also list bibliographies for further reading.

The tabs to the left link to pages with information on how to find specific types of primary sources. 

Primary and Secondary Sources--Examples

Topic:   French colonialism in Indochina (1887-1954)

Primary sources:  Tuck, Patrick J. N., and University of Liverpool. Department of History. French Catholic Missionaries and the Politics of Imperialism in Vietnam, 1857-1914 : A Documentary Survey. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1987. Print. (book containing contemporary sources)

"The Defence of a French Stronghold in Indo-China."  The Times  (London, England), Friday, Jan 29, 1954; pg. 14; Issue 52842. (Newspaper article about the battle at Dien Bien Phu)

Secondary sources:   McLeod, Mark W. The Vietnamese Response to French Intervention, 1862-1874. New York: Praeger, 1991. Print. Holland/Terrell Libraries Stacks DS556.8 .M39 1991  (book)

Garner, Reuben. "The French In Indochina: Some Impressions Of The Colonial Inspectors, 1867-1913." Southeast Asia: An International Quarterly 3.3 (1974): 831-840. Historical Abstracts. Web. (journal article)

Tertiary source:  "French Imperialism in Southeast Asia." World History Encyclopedia. Vol. 15: Era 7: The Age of Revolutions, 1750-1914. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2011. 586-587. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web.  (encyclopedia entry) 

Primary and Secondary Sources--Examples

Topic:  Wounded Knee Massacre (Dec. 29, 1890)

Primary sources:  Gonzalez, Mario, and Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. The Politics of Hallowed Ground : Wounded Knee and the Struggle for Indian Sovereignty. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1999. Print. (book; includes diaries and chronicles, written testimony, and Senate hearing)

Royer, D. F. 1890. Letter and list [manuscript]: 1890. Available through: American Indian Histories and Cultures  (digital collection) Adam Matthew, Marlborough, [Accessed June 28, 2016]. (letter by U.S. Indian agent at the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota, appointed in Oct., 1890, and relieved of his duties following the Battle of Wounded Knee, Dec. 29, 1890.)

Secondary sources:  Rhine, Gary., et al., Left Hand Bull, Kifaru Productions, and Eagle Heart Productions. Wiping the Tears of Seven Generations. San Francisco, CA: Kifaru Productions, 1992. Native American Relations Video. (documentary)

Grua, D. W. "In Memory Of The Chief Big Foot Massacre": The Wounded Knee Survivors And The Politics Of Memory." Western Historical Quarterly 46.1 (2015): 31-51. America: History & Life. Web.  (journal article)

Tertiary source:  Ostler, Jeffrey. "Wounded Knee." Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. Ed. Dinah L. Shelton. Vol. 3. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 1166-1168. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web.

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