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Finding Archives and Manuscripts

Provides an overview of strategies for locating primary sources, including archival and manuscript material.

Subject Terms for Types of Primary Sources

You can enhance your searches in Library Catalog Search by using subject terms that describe materials by format.  For example, if you enter your topic as a keyword in advanced search, you can also add subject terms that will specify a type of material related to that topic.

You can also add date ranges (e.g., 19th century) and geographic regions (Africa) as subject terms to focus in on the time period or area you are researching: e.g., biography AND “19th century” AND Norway.

Subject Terms that specify format:

  • archival resources
  • archives
  • atlases
  • bibliography
  • biography
  • broadsides
  • case studies
  • charts, diagrams
  • concordances
  • correspondence
  • diaries
  • dictionaries
  • encyclopedias
  • handbooks, manuals, etc.
  • illustrations
  • indexes
  • manuscripts—catalogs
  • maps
  • newspapers
  • periodicals 
  • personal narratives
  • photograph collections
  • pictorial works
  • portraits
  • sermons
  • sources
  • speeches in Congress
  • speeches, addresses, etc.
  • statistics

What is a primary source?

In general, a primary source is closest to the event, person, idea, or period that you are studying. 

Secondary sources discuss and analyze primary sources; they're called secondary sources because they are at least one step removed from the primary source. 

So, if you're writing on Emily Dickinson's "Hope is the thing with feathers," the poem is your primary source and a critical article discussing the poem is a secondary source.

Sources that are even further removed (e.g., because they synthesize and describe material from secondary sources) are called tertiary sources.  An encyclopedia article or a Wikipedia entry would be considered tertiary sources.

Are there exceptions?
Absolutely! Sometimes what we think of as secondary sources become primary sources, depending on how you are using them.  For example, if you are analyzing how literary scholars from the 1950s talked about women's literature, you would be using scholarly articles and books from that period as primary sources.  Whether a source is primary or secondary depends on what you are analyzing.

Types of Primary Sources

Literary or cultural sources:

  • novels, plays, poems (both published and in manuscript form)
  • television shows, movies, or videos
  • paintings or photographs

Accounts that describe events, people, or ideas:

  • newspapers
  • chronicles or historical accounts
  • essays and speeches
  • memoirs, diaries, and letters
  • philosophical treatises or manifestos

Finding Information about people:

  • census records
  • obituaries
  • newspaper articles
  • biographies

Finding information about organizations:

  • archives (sometimes held by libraries, institutions, or historical societies)
  • search Library Catalog Search or WorldCat using the name of the organization as an author

Finding information about a place:

  • maps and atlases
  • census information
  • statistics
  • photographs
  • city directories
  • the local library or historical society