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Special Collections *: What To Know About Conducting Archival/Primary Source Research

This is a guide to the Department of Special Collections at the University of Southern California and its holdings, including rare books and manuscripts. Useful tools for locating items and scheduling class visits are also included.

Primary Sources

"Every piece of paper that people leave behind is full of clues. From diaries and letters to newspapers and census reports, documents tell us about the circumstances of everyday life and about significant events. Historians spend a lot of time in archives studying all kinds of documentary evidence and glean rich information from the written word.

To be most useful, documents must be studied carefully and critically. While it might be clearly stated who the writer is and who the audience is, the intended message may not be obvious. Researchers, whether student or professional, must look beyond the intended meaning to consider hidden agendas, unintended meanings, and bias or point of view of the creator of the document. Other elements to analyze include tone, grammar, word choice, and style. This information will enable the researcher to interpret the document with a critical eye.

Like all other primary sources, documents must be studied in conjunction with other evidence. While documents often reveal information, it is important to verify the information with photographs, objects, oral histories, or other available sources. "
(Smithsonian Museum of American History: Engaging Students with Primary Sources)

Primary Source:
A first-hand, original account, recird, or evidence about a person, place, object, or an event. Examples for primary sources: Oral histories, objects, photographs, and documents such as newspapers, ledgers, census records, diaries, journals.
Primary sources are created by the individuals who witnessed or experienced the events or conditions being documented.
Generally, primary sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occuring, but can also be created later if based on first-hand experiences (example: Holocaust survivor testimonies in USC's Shoah Foundation Archive)
Primary sources have not been filtered through interpretation or evaluation. They are primary sources on which other research is based on.

Secondary Source:
An account, record, or evidence derived from an original or primary source. Textbooks are secondary sources.

Why Use Primary Sources?
Primary sources are used by researchers to learn about people, events, and every day life in the past. Reserchers look at clues, sift through evidence, and reach conclusions.
Students can use primary sources, too. By focusing on the evidence such as documents, objects, photographs, and oral histories, students can get a glimpse into the past beyond what a textbook can provide. Working with primary sources helps students develop critical thinking skills, refine cognitive, investigative, deductive reasoning and problem-solving skills, and help building personal connections with history.


Smithsonian Museum of American History: Engaging Students with Primary Sources

Analyzing Primary Source Materials

Analyzing the Quality of Primary Source

- Where, when, and why a document was created?

- Was the source created close in location and time to an actual historical event?

- What was the source of the item?


Time & Place Rule

The closer in time and place a source and its creator were to an event in the past, the better the source will be


- Direct traces of the event

- Accounts of the event, created at the time it occurred, by firsthand observers and participants

- Accounts of the event, created after the event occurred, by first hand observers and participants

- Accounts of the event, created after the event occurred by people who did not participate or witness the event, but who used interviews or  evidence from

the time of the event


Bias Rule

Every source is biased in some way.

- Every piece of evidence and every source must be read or viewed skeptically and critically.

- No piece of evidence should be taken at face value.  The creator’s point of view must be considered.

- Each piece of evidence and source must be cross-checked and compared with related sources and pieces of evidence.


Questions to ask yourself:

- Who created the sources and why?

- Was it created through a spur-of-the-moment act, a routine transaction, or a thoughtful, deliberate process?

- Who is the audience the material is intended for?

- Did the recorder have firsthand knowledge of the event?  Or, did the recorder report what others saw and heard?

- Was the recorder a neutral party, or did the creator have opinions or interests that might have influenced what was recorded?

- What was the creator’s purpose in making this primary source?

- Did the recorder wish to inform or persuade others?  (Check the words in the source.  The words may tell you whether the recorder was trying to be

objective or persuasive).  Did the recorder have reasons to be honest or dishonest?

Was the information recorded during the event, immediately after the event, or after some lapse of time?  How large a lapse of time?




Using Critical Thinking Skills Analyzing Primary Source Materials, University of South Carolina Upstate and from “Using Primary Sources”, Library of Congress:

Strenghts of Documents:

- Provides information on the who, what, where, when, why, and how of an event

- Provides written, printed, or graphic information

- Can clarify the purpose of the communication or transaction

- Can be a clue to the level of education of the author

- Sometimes offers evidence of emotion

- Can stimulate the personal involvement of the reader

Limitations of Documents:

- Not a thouroughly objective source

- Generally a verbal, not a visual, record

- Often more to the story than what is presented

- Bias and agenda of the author to be considered

- Identity of the author often unclear (especially true in the case of government documents)

- Author often no longer living and therefore unavailable to consult or verify

- Possibly difficult to read: handwriting difficult to decipher; words or phrases that are unfamiliar; their meaning changed over time

- Must be evaluated in conjunction with other evidence to determine whether the document presents information that is exceptional or conforming with previously established patterns

Source: Smithsonian Museum of American History: Engaging Students with Primary Sources

Strenghts of Newspapers

- Many different types of information in one place: news articles, editorials, ads, columns, sports scores

- Generally factual

- Quick way to get basic info: who, where, when, what, why

- Provides larger context of information

- Written for a mass audience - easy to understand

- Often has visual content: photographs, editorial cartoons, comics, ads

- Addresses current events

- Especially good for local information



Limitations of Newspapers:

- Shows the bias of the publisher/Owner, editor, writer

- Subject to political and economic pressures

- Fact checking not always thorough - written to meet deadlines

- Newsprint is hard to preserve

- Most newspapers not indexed; need to know dates to use

- Varying ideas of what is considered newsworthy by locale and time


Source: Smithsonian Museum of American History: Engaging Students with Primary Sources

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