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Course & Subject Guides

History of the American Frontier - Oakland Campus

This guide will assist students in Dr. Smith's HIST 1625 class with their research.

What are Primary Sources?

Primary Sources

  • Original materials that provide direct evidence or first-hand testimony concerning a topic or event.
  • Primary sources can be contemporary sources created at the time when the event occurred (e.g., letters and newspaper articles) or later (e.g., memoirs and oral history interviews).
  • Primary sources may be published or unpublished.  Unpublished sources are unique materials (e.g., family papers) often referred to as archives and manuscripts.
  • What constitutes a primary source varies by discipline. How the researcher uses the source generally determines whether it is a primary source or not.

What Are Secondary Sources?

Secondary Sources

  • Works that interpret, analyze, and discuss the evidence provided by primary sources (e.g., scholarly books and articles).
  • Secondary sources are generally a second-hand account or observation at least one step removed from the event.
  • Secondary sources, however, can be considered to be primary sources depending on the context of their use. For example, Ken Burns' documentary of the Civil War is a secondary source for Civil War researchers, but a primary source for those studying documentary filmmaking.

 

Locating Primary Sources

Library Catalogs

  • Search PittCat to find primary source materials at ULS libraries.
  • Search WorldCat to find collections at thousands of libraries worldwide. Use the Advanced Search feature to limit by format or publication date.

Finding Aids

A finding aid is "a description of records that gives the repository physical and intellectual control over the materials and that assists users to gain access to and understand the materials." Source: Richard Pearce-Moses. Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology. Chicago: The Society of American Archivists, 2005.

Use finding aids to locate processed archival collections in archives, libraries, and museums. Finding aids are increasingly available online and freely accessible.

Reference & Other Print Sources

Make use of the many excellent print resources that are available to find primary source materials.  These include:

  • Bibliographies
  • Film, Literature, and Periodical Indexes
  • Biographical Resources
  • Encyclopedias, Dictionaries, Handbooks
  • Secondary Sources (search the text, footnotes, and bibliographies for references to primary sources used)

Internet Search Engines

  • Use the Internet to find primary source materials by adding primary source specific terms (see Searching PittCat) to a Search Engine search. For example, "Civil War + Pennsylvania soldiers + diaries."