Primary Research

newspapers & magazines unpublished manuscripts government documents Digital Philadelphia

Introduction

For professional historians, "original research" means using primary sources to construct a new historical narrative that contributes to the great body of collective knowledge out there. It's also the fun part of an historian's job: one is a detective, piecing together evidence to find out what happened way back when.

Definition

Primary sources are those kinds of evidence created during the period you are studying. Many, many kinds of evidence can be primary sources: personal letters (historians love reading other people's mail); professional letters (almost as interesting as the personal letters); photographs or other illustrations; newspaper and magazine articles; obituaries; artistic creations like novels, songs, poems, or paintings; material evidence like buildings, bridges, old garbage dumps or outhouses (into which people tossed broken dishes, etc.); federal government records of all kinds: censuses, transcripts of congressional hearings and sessions, presidential correspondence, diplomatic dispatches, correspondence in every single agency in every single department in the government, laws, official reports, legal cases in federal courts, military records, and many others; oral interviews; diaries; archeological remains, and the list goes on.

Again, sometimes the distinction between primary and secondary sources can be fuzzy. Consider a memoir someone wrote late in life about his or her youth... that's not quite as firsthand as, say, a diary written as events unfolded.

Are primary sources on-line? The number of on-line primary sources still represents a teeny tiny fraction of the material out there, and you would be seriously undermining your research potential if you limit yourself only to on-line primary sources. However, they are growing rapidly in number and kind, and you can reach many important sources that will certainly help your research projects.



  • Drexel University College of Arts & Sciences History & Politics Prof. Steen

  • Department of History & Politics, Drexel University, 3141 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-2875 steen@drexel.edu