More on Finding Primary Sources

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What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period.  Primary sources were either created during the time period being studied, or were created at a later date by a participant in the events being studied (as in the case of memoirs) and they reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer.

Search strategies - overview

To find most library materials EXCEPT articles, use a library catalog. Catalogs include books, government documents, maps, videotapes, sound recordings, music scores and many other types of materials. Catalogs also list collections of manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, and records of organizations, but they do not list individual items in those collections.

Primary sources may be in their original format or may have been reproduced at a later date in a different format, such as a book, microfilm collection, video, or on the Internet. All of these formats except Internet sources can be found by searching library catalogs.

For important advice on finding and evaluating primary sources on the internet, see Using Primary Sources on the Web from the History Section of the Reference and User Services Association, a division of the American Library Association.

To find magazine, journal or newspaper articles, use an article database or index.

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Search strategies: by type of primary source

Before you start searching it may be useful to find some background information on your topic

Type of primary source Search strategy
Books from the time period you're writing about
Memoirs, letters, interviews, autobiographies, diaries
  • If you have the name of an individual, search Blais or other library catalogs for that name as an author (last name, first name).
  • If you do not have the name of an individual, search Blais or other library catalogs using your topic in a keyword search and add an appropriate subheading.
    Selected subheadings:
    • correspondence
    • diaries
    • interviews
    • personal narratives

    Example: you might search using the topic japanese americans and the subjeading interviews.

  • Ask for reference assistance in the Library.
Magazine or journal article from the time period you're writing about
  • Use an article database or index to locate the citations (title, author, name of the periodical, date, volume, page numbers) of relevant articles.
  • Search Blais by title of the magazine or journal to determine whether it is available in the Library.
Newspaper article from the time period you're writing about - for a specific event or date
Specific newspaper or journal title, such as the Chicago Defender)
  • Search Blais by title of the newspaper or journal to determine whether it is available in the Library.
Newspapers by city or by topic
  • Search Blais or other library catalogs by keyword using the name of the city and the word newspapers.
  • Example: to find newspapers in Boston, search using boston newspapers.

  • Search Blais or other library catalogs using your topic word(s) and the word newspapers.
  • Example: to find newspapers by or about African Americans in Los Angeles, search using african americans los angeles newspapers.

Records of or materials published by an organization
Records of government agencies
Manuscript collections
Speeches
Photographs
  • Search Blais or other library catalogs by keyword using the keywords from your topic and the word photographs or the phrase pictorial works.
  • Example: to find photograhs of World War II search using world war ii photographs.

    Note: Whenever you use a keyword search, browse through the records to find subjects that may produce better results. When you use World War II as a keyword search, you will find that the subject: World War, 1939-1945 produces better search results.

  • Search Blais or other library catalogs by names of photographers as author.
  • Search the Claremont Colleges Digital Library to find images from the Colleges' history as well as images on a wide range of other subjects.
  • Search the Online Archive of California for images from archives from all over California.
Audio recordings
  • Search Blais by keyword, title, or author and limit to Type of Material: Musical Recordings or Nonmusical Recordings. Note: Similar limits are available in most library catalogs.
Video recordings
  • Search Blais by title or director (as author) and limit to Type of Material: Videos.
  • Consult the Media Materials page for information on holdings in the Library and on specific campuses.
Public opinion polls
Fiction from a particular time period

Consult one of the following printed indexes:

  • Fiction Catalog, Honnold/Mudd Reference Z 5916 F4
  • Short Story Index, Honnold/Mudd Reference Z 5917 S5 C62
  • Play Index, Denison Reference Z 5781 P53
Movies from a particular time period

Consult one of the following:

  • Internet Movie Database
  • CineFiles
  • Magill's Survey of Cinema: English Language Films, Honnold/Mudd Reference PN 1993.45 M3 and PN 1993.45 M32X.
  • Magill's Survey of Cinema: Silent Films, Honnold/Mudd Reference PN 1993.45 M33
  • Handbook of American Film Genres, Honnold/Mudd Reference PN 1993.5 U6 H335 1988
  • Film Review Index, Honnold/Mudd Reference PN 1995 M9 P513 1986

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Search strategies: using information you have

Before you start searching it may be useful to find some background information on your topic

Information you already have Search strategy
name of an individual
name of an organization
topic
  • Search Blais or other library catalogs for your topic as keywords.
    • Click on the title of relevant items to look for official subject terms.
    • Search the catalogs using any official subjects you found in a subject search. Note: a quick way to search by official subjects is to simply click on the subject you want to search in the record you're viewing.
  • Search Blais or other library catalogs by subject or by keyword using official subject headings and subheadings that indicate primary sources.
  • Search article databases or indexes for your topic by keywords.
    • Click on the title of relevant items to find official subject terms (or descriptors).
    • Search the article database or index using the subject terms or descriptors you have found in a keyword search.
dates
  • Search Blais or other library catalogs using any of the techniques listed above; limit by year of publication to find materials published during the time period you are writing about.
  • Search article databases or indexes using any of the techniques listed above; limit by date of publication to find materials published during the time period you are writing about.
a specific title
  • In Blais use exact title to search for the title of a book, manuscript, diary, etc.
  • Use exact title to search Blais for the title of a journal, magazine, or newspaper.
  • If you have the title of an article, search Blais for the title of the journal, magazine, or newspaper in which the articles appeared.,
  • If you do not know the name of the journal, magazine, or newspaper in which the article appeared, search for the article in an article database or index. Find the complete citation (title of journal, date, volume, etc.); then search the Blais by title of the journal, magazine, or newspaper.

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Using library catalogs

To find most library materials EXCEPT articles, use a library catalog. Blais is the catalog for The Claremont Colleges Library. Many other catalogs are also available for you to search. Catalogs allow you to search for books, government documents, maps, videotapes, sound recordings, music scores, and many other types of materials. Catalogs also list collections of manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, and records of organizations, but they do not list individual items in those collections.

One of the most effective ways to search a library catalog for materials on a particular topic, is to use Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), the standardized subject terms used by most libraries. Here are some ways you can find appropriate subject headings for your topics:

You may also pair an appropriate subject heading with specific subheadings that identify materials as primary sources. Here are a few of those subheadings:

Example: to find primary sources on Japanese student movements throughout history, try student movements japan history sources. To look for letters written during the French Revolution, try france revolution correspondence.

Note: these searches will not retrieve all possible primary sources on the topic but they are a good way to start.

Blais is the catalog for The Claremont Colleges Library. You may search by keyword, LC subject heading, author, and more. You may also limit your searches in different ways; for example, by year of publication, type of material (videos, recordings, etc.), language, or library location. Search results may be saved to a list and emailed to your email account.

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Using article databases and indexes

To find magazine, journal or newspaper articles, use an article database or index. Although many of these resources are available online, a few are still only available in paper. Many article databases link to the full text of articles.

Databases available from the Library are listed alphabetically by title, by subject, and by type/format. Until you are very familiar with the databases you want to use, it's best to start from the subject list. Look carefully at the description of each database you are considering. Note what years of publication are covered, what types of materials are covered, and whether the database covers a specific academic discipline (such as history) or is interdisciplinary.

Unless you have the name of a specific author, start with a keyword search, using a few key terms. Enter phrases such as spanish-american war or two or more key terms connected by and (for example, England and suffrage). Most databases have both brief and full (or complete) record displays. Look at the full display of relevant records to find official subject terms (also known as descriptors) to use in a subject search.

Once you have used a database to find relevant articles, you will want to find the text of those articles. Look for full-text links in the article record, use the green Get this item button, or search Blais by title of the journal, magazine, or newspaper the article is in to determine if it is available from the Library, either electronically or in paper. If it is not available, you may request the article through interlibrary loan.

Use the lists of primary source databases by subject, by type of material, by time period, and by title to identify databases that will be especially useful in searching for primary sources.

If you are not able to find a database that looks relevant for your research, ask for reference assistance in the Library.

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Special collections at The Colleges

Campus collections of manuscripts, original diaries and letters and other archival materials can be found in the Library’s Special Collections. You will also find these types of materials in the Claremont Colleges Digital Library. Original works of art can be found in galleries on campus such as the Pomona College Museum of Art and the Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery at Scripps. The web sites for these collections are helpful in identifying what is available; even more valuable is the assistance of the curators of the collections. Be sure to talk with them about your research.

Finding background information

Reference works such as encyclopedias, almanacs, and biographical dictionaries, and secondary sources can help you find background information on your topic, including names, dates and other information you can use to search library catalogs and article databases and indexes. To find reference works on your topic, try a keyword search in Blais using your topic and the word encyclopedias or dictionaries. For example, to find an encyclopedia that will give you background information on the history of Egypt, try egypt history encyclopedias.

What Are Secondary Sources?

A secondary source is a work that interprets or analyzes an historical event or phenomenon. It is generally at least one step removed from the event. Examples include scholarly or popular books and articles, reference books, and textbooks.

To find secondary sources in book form, search Blais or other library catalogs. To find articles that are secondary sources, search an article database or index.

Requesting materials through interlibrary loan

Although some primary source materials may be too fragile or too rare to be borrowed through interlibrary loan, many items are available. See the interlibrary loan pages for details about borrowing books, articles, and other types of materials. The Center for Research Libraries, located in Chicago, holds many primary source materials that are available through interlibrary loan.

Need more assistance?

Whenever you have questions or need additional help, please ask for reference assistance in person or using instant messaging or email.

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Last updated: 6/13/2012 4:00:46 PM