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History Courses & Research

Primary Sources: What is that in the humanities?

Finding primary sources for history projects

The difference between primary in science and the humanities:

In the sciences, you often call something a primary research article if the topic is an original experimental study performed by the authors. In the humanities, a primary source is anything that is original to the time period which you are studying.

image of a map of the chicago fire

  • A newspaper article from September 12, 2001 can be a primary source if you are studying that time period.
  • A diary, letter, or other personal communication is a primary source from whatever time period it was written.
  • The social media post you write today will be a primary source about your life if anyone studies it in the future.
  • A scholarly book published in 1985 writing about the Civil Rights movement is a secondary source if you are using it to get scholarly commentary--but it is a primary source if you are using it as evidence of how people wrote about race in the 80's.
  • See the pattern? If it is original to the time period you are studying, it is a primary source for that topic.
  • Primary sources don't have to be written--they can be objects, recordings, and other types of artifacts.

Primary Sources in Print and Online

Look for primary sources in print and online

  • Use "source" as a subject term keyword in searching OneSearch and WorldCat or use the name of the document type as one of your keywords (such as searching for Iowa women immigrant diaries).
  • Use "primary source," museum, archive, and/or site:org as a keyword with your topic on Google or another online search engine. The two examples below are different and yielded equally interesting results with primary sources:
    • screencap of a search using museum and site:org
    • Screencap of search using "primary source"

In addition, some databases and websites lead you to primary sources more directly:

Evaluation: Ask the 3 questions, especially for websites

What is it? Why do I care? What does it really say?

Whatever source you use, but especially sources you find online, remember to mindfully answer the three evaluation questions. History buffs abound, and they love to share their knowledge online--but there's no reason you should use an amateur historian's information on a website if better information by an actual expert or scholar exists elsewhere.

Quick reference for the three questions:

  • What is it: What is the source type and author credibility?
    • Quick Wikipedia checks are okay!
  • Why do I care: Does the source type and author credibility meet your needs?
    • Decide this at the beginning so you know whether to investigate or find something better.
  • What does it really say: Perceive how the word choices influence the knowledge.
    • How slanted the word choice is can make a difference in how or why you would use it.

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