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History Research Guide

What is a primary source?

There's no one thing, but for historians, it's generally something that was created at the time of the event. Try searching using terms like: biography [also use for autobiographies], newspapers, "personal papers" [use for archival material], correspondence [use for letters], personal diaries, photographs, videos, interviews, pamphlets, artwork, sources [a common one!], and many other types of things!

About primary sources

Note: Digitized primary sources often contain harmful language when referencing marginalized groups of people, and the search tools almost always require that researchers use the terminology of the original authors in order to bring back relevant search results. This can make the research process quite painful. Please feel free to reach out to me or to your professor for assistance navigating this research process.

Reading primary sources critically

Historians need to use primary sources. But "use" isn't the same as "believe every word of"! A few pointers:

  1. Situate it: Who is the author? When were they writing? Where? Where was this source originally published / stored / presented? 
  2. Who is the audience they're talking to? Why are they talking to this audience? 
  3. What isn't the author saying? Why do you think this silence exists?
  4. Are they purposefully using inflammatory language? To what end? What's the advantage to them?
  5. Are they making shocking claims? Fact check!
    • Look in recently published reference sources or secondary sources.
    • No secondary sources available? Try looking for a corroborating voice from the same time period. Are other people at this same time making this same claim? 

Specialized Primary Source Types

Translating older place names

Not sure where Tabropane was? Try these methods for translating...

1. Look in a catalog or reference book

2. Look at old maps

3. (Advanced) Search Name Authority Files

About South Asian spelling...

Words in South Asian languages can be transliterated several different ways when spelled using Roman characters, so try several ways of spelling people's names or other terms.