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American Women: Historical Biographical Sources: Primary Sources: Newspapers, Memoirs, and More

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Introduction

Primary sources are important for people conducting research in history, literature, and the arts.  Primary source material is made up of documents and media created while an event was happening.  For example, if you are studying the Civil War, you might use newspapers from the 1860s, diaries of individuals affected by the war, or songs written during the conflict as primary sources.  These kinds of primary resources are useful for researchers because they provide insight that hasn't been influenced by later events.  Primary resources help researchers understand the people’s perceptions of the events at the time they occurred.

Techniques for finding primary sources may vary based on your topic, but this guide is intended to provide a starting point. If you need further assistance, please contact me or the Info & Research Help Desk.

What Primary Sources Do You Need?

First, consider what kinds of primary sources you might need.

Examples of primary sources and possible places to find them
Personal journals, letters, memoirs

Libraries (Books)

Archives (Personal papers)

Newspapers, magazines

Libraries (Databases and archives)

Archives (Individual articles)

Newspaper web sites

Films, images

Libraries

Film archives

Web sites

 

From there, plan your approach. Many library catalogs list archival materials, but others include archival materials in a separate area of their web sites. Browse library home pages for links to their "Archives" or "Special Collections" pages. (There is a link to URI's Special Collections on the Home page of this guide, but many local public libraries contain their own archives.)


If you're using a catalog, play around with your search terms. Many tools use a standardized vocabulary to describe items. For example, academic library catalogs like ours use the Subject subheadings "Personal narratives," "Correspondence," and "Diaries" to classify certain types of information. Look at likely results to form further searches. WorldCat uses the same naming conventions, but other sources may use different terms.

Personal Journals, Letters, and Memoirs

One category of primary sources are those written by individuals at the time, describing events during their lives. These include memoirs, journals, diaries, letters, and so on.

Most catalogs (such as our catalog, Brown's JOSIAH catalog, and WorldCat) use standardized terms to describe these kinds of materials, making it easier for researchers to locate them.

Below are terms used and some example searches. To find your own: Use the Advanced Search in the catalog and combine these terms with your topics. For example, civil war and personal narratives. You can edit the searches below to reflect your own interests by replacing the provided search terms with your own.

Newspaper and Magazine Articles

Articles from magazines and newspapers from the time of an event are another type of primary source.

Article databases are great places to start your search for magazine and newspaper articles, but for older magazine articles, you may need to consult a print source such as Poole's Index (below).

To find articles, think about the time frame you're researching, and perhaps the geographic location. For example: 1940s New York, or London during World War I. Articles from larger newspapers and magazines are more likely to be indexed in a database. For smaller papers, check libraries in the geographic area, as many will have local history resources.

Sometimes, you can just browse newspapers or magazines around particular significant dates or events to find relevant articles.

Below are some tools to help you start your article search.

Films and Images

This is just a small selection of resources for films and images. For more assistance locating visual primary sources, please contact the Reference Desk.

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