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Communication Research Guide

Research Guide for Communication majors and students enrolled in Communication classes

Finding Primary Sources

Primary & Secondary Sources - What's the Difference? 

Primary Sources are firsthand accounts of an event -- or original records created during that time period -- which do not contain any outside interpretation. Primary sources can include letters, diaries, or interviews; historical news reportage; original works of fiction, art, or music; testimony or speeches. Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period. 

Examples: Original documents (excerpts or translations acceptable) including diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records; creative Works including poetry, drama, novels, music, art; and relics or artifacts (pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings). 

Secondary Sources interpret and analyze primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them.

Examples: Dictionaries, encyclopedias, textbooks, and books and articles that interpret or review research works. 

When and Why You Should Use Primary Sources

  • You need a better understanding of an event, produced by someone who experienced or witnessed the event in question
  • You need to offer a view of history through the lens of of unique, often profoundly personal, documents or objects
  • You need examples of different points of view from individuals whose stories might not have been told

Remember: Primary sources are the building blocks of historical research and should provide the foundation of your argument and interpretation, whereas secondary sources should inform and supplement the primary sources. Use your primary sources as evidence for answering your research question and write based on those sources, rather than “plugging them in” after the fact to bolster your argument. In short, primary sources should drive the paper, not the other way around.

More Information About Primary Sources

Primary sources such as letters, memoirs, diaries, photos, and other materials are often a rich resource for literary research. Fortunately, many archives, museums and libraries have begun digitizing their collections of primary source material and have made them available online. The library also subscribes to several databases that provide primary source content. To help you find primary sources on your topic, visit our Primary Sources LibGuide for more information and take a look at the information below. If you can't find what you're looking for, please do not hesitate to contact me or another librarian for assistance. 

Examples of primary sources include: 

  • News articles written at the time of an event
  • Letters, diaries, and scrapbooks
  • Government documents (laws, congressional transcripts)
  • Research data and statistics
  • Personal accounts, autobiographies, memoirs
  • Images and museum artifacts
  • Speeches
  • Oral histories
  • Original works of literature and poetry

Finding Primary Sources

Primary sources can be found in many different places, so you have to be creative in your searching and try looking in different places. Some primary sources can be found within secondary sources, like when the transcript of an original speech or a photograph is included in a book. Here are some strategies you can use to look for primary sources. If you get stuck, be sure to ask a librarian for assistance. 

1. Use OneSearch on the library's website. Add keywords such as "sources" or "documents" to your search. (e.g. Civil War documents). 

Here are some additional ideas for keywords to add to your search, depending on the type of source you need: 

  • Letters - Correspondence OR letters (Civil War correspondence, French Revolution letters);
  • Diaries - Diary  (Civil War diary, woman diary France);
  • Oral history - Interview OR oral history OR speeches (Cold War interview, Japanese internment oral history, Malcolm X speeches);
  • Pamphlet - Pamphlet (pamphlet chastity, rights of women pamphlet);
  • Photographs or artwork - Pictorial works (Chicago pictorial works, World's Fair pictorial works).
  • Personal accounts - Autobiography OR memoir

2. Explore the library's Primary Source Databases.The library has a number of databases that contain primary source content.

3. Explore the Primary Sources Research Guide. This guide contains: 

4. Search the Web. Many museums, archives, and libraries have digitized their collections of primary sources and have made them available on the Web. When you don’t have a specific primary source in mind, for search terms use your subject plus "primary sources" (e.g. world war I soldiers primary sources). If you've already identified the primary source you need, enter the title in quotes in the search box to search the title as a phrase (e.g. “A soldier recalls the Trail of Tears”).