Understanding primary sources 

If you are seeking to learn about the past, primary sources of information are those that provide first-hand accounts of the events, practices, or conditions you are researching. In general, these are documents that were created by the witnesses or first recorders of these events at about the time they occurred, and include diaries, letters, reports, photographs, creative works, financial records, memos, and newspaper articles (to name just a few types).  

Primary sources also include first-hand accounts that were documented later, such as autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories. However, the most useful primary sources are usually considered to be those that were created closest to the time period you’re researching.  

Determining which kinds of documents constitute primary sources depends upon the topic you’re researching. (For example, sometimes the same book or article could be considered a primary source for one research topic and a secondary source for a different topic.)

For Example: The paiting of Washington Crossing The Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze was painted in 1851. 

This paiting is both a primary and secondary source depending on what you are researching.

Primary

It is a primary source if you are studying the painter Emanuel Leutze or art and paintings from the late 19th centurary.

Secondary

It is a secondary source if you are studying the American Revolution or the actual event of Washington crossing the Delaware, this is because the events depicted in the painting took place in 1776, over 50 years before the painting was painted.  Emanuel Leutze was not present for the events he is depicting so it cannot be a primary source for those events. 


Library Resources

  • Black Abolitionist Papers: 1830-1865 (ProQuest)
    This collection searches a unique set of primary sources from African Americans actively involved in the movement to end slavery in the United States between 1830 and 1865. Approximately 15,000 articles, documents, correspondence, proceedings, manuscripts, and literary works of almost 300 Black abolitionists show the full range of their activities in the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, France and Germany.
  • African American Studies Center Online (Oxford)
    The database provides students, scholars and librarians with online access to the finest reference resources in African American studies. At its core, AASC features the new Encyclopedia of African American History: 1619-1895Black Women in America, the highly acclaimed Africana, a five-volume history of the African and African American experience, and the African American National Biography project (estimated at 8 volumes). In addition to these major reference works, AASC offers other key resources from Oxford's reference program, including the Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature and selected articles from other reference works.
  • Eighteenth Century Collections Online (Gale)
    Access the digital images of every page of 150,000 books published during the 18th Century. With full-text searching of approximately 26 million pages, the product allows researchers new methods of access to critical information in the fields of history, literature, religion, law, fine arts, science and more.

Web Resources 

  • American Memory (Library of Congress)Includes a number of collections of print and non-print materials (photographs, posters, archival sources) pertaining to immigration, such as Pioneering the Upper Midwest and The Chinese in California, 1850-1925.
  • Aspiration, Acculturation, and Impact : Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930.  "Immigration has shaped the contours of this nation's history from its founding to the present day. Immigration has shaped the nation's cities, its institutions, industries, and laws, its literature and its culture. Harvard's world-renowned library and museum holdings reflect these realities through guidebooks, ethnic publications, policy documents, diaries, photographs, and organizatonal records that chronicle the continuing impact of immigration on the United States." Sidney Verba, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Research Professor and Founder of the Open Collections Program at Harvard University.  Immigration to the US, 1789-1930 is a web-based collection of selected historical materials from Harvard's libraries, archives, and museums that documents voluntary immigration to the United States from the signing of the Constitution to the onset of the Great Depression. For Internet users worldwide, Immigration to the US provides unparalleled, free and open digital access to a significant selection of unique source materials—more than 410,000 pages, 100 individually cataloged maps, and 7,800 photographs.

  • Immigration Challenges for New Americans : Photographs, maps detailing immigration patterns, official documents, song sheets and streaming audio recount the immigrant experience in America, their reasons for leaving their homelands, and the reactions of established Americans. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

  • Immigration History Research Center. An "interdisciplinary research center in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota. Founded in 1965, the IHRC promotes research on international migration with a special emphasis on immigrant and refugee life in the U.S."

  • John Novak Digital Interview Collection. Consists of interviews about immigration, migration, and the Civil Rights Movement. The interviewees, who range in age from 20 to 90, speak of their experiences moving to and within the United States. Listen to interviews from Esperanza Perez whose Mexican mother crossed the border to give birth to her daughter so that she could be an American citizen, Earnest Stamps who recounts his train ride to Detroit and his wonderment upon arrival at the Michigan Central Station, or Yvonne Revell who was a participant in the Greensboro Sit-in demonstrations. The project began in 2004 as part of a Teacher-Scholar award received by Professor Dena Scher in the Psychology/ Social Sciences Department of Marygrove College. In 2006, librarian Michael Barnes adapted the digital interviews into a special collection within the auspices of the Marygrove College Library.

  • Red Star Line Museum (Belgium).  Between 1873 and 1934, the legendary Red Star Line transported more than two million European passengers to America. At the port in Antwerp, Belgium, emigrants in steerage class underwent disinfection and medical examinations while clerks scrutinized their documents. Today three warehouses stand as a testament to this emigrant experience. In 2012, Red Star Line / People on the Move will open a new museum at this historic location. It will be a place of remembrance, experience, debate and research into international mobility, both past and present....Millions of passengers travelled with Red Star Line, they told hundreds of stories to their (grand)children about their journey. Read selected stories.
  • NYPL Digital Collection
    This site is a living database with new materials added every day, featuring prints, photographs, maps, manuscripts, streaming video, and more. Try searching for "Immigrant" or Immigrant coupled with a specific nationality and see what you find. 

Digitized Letters & Correspondence

  •  The Hathi Trust
    The Hathi Trust is a huge digital repository, but you can use it to search specifically for correspondence by going to the advanced search page. In the first search box put “Correspondence” and select “Subject” form the dropdown menu next to the search box. In the second search box put “poetry” and again select “subject.” The scroll down and tick the box for “Full view only” and then hit “Search.”
  • American Founding Era Collection
    A gateway into one of the great conversations in history. These newly prepared digital editions of the papers of many of the major figures of the early republic are presented in a fully searchable and interoperable online environment.
  • The First World War Poetry Digital ArchiveThe First World War Poetry Digital Archive is an online repository of over 7000 items of text, images, audio, and video for teaching, learning, and research.
    • The heart of the archive consists of collections of highly valued primary material from major poets of the period, including Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves, Vera Brittain, and Edward Thomas.
  • Correspondences from The Rossetti Archive

    The Rossetti Archive facilitates the scholarly study of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the painter, designer, writer, and translator who was, according to both John Ruskin and Walter Pater, the most important and original artistic force in the second half of the nineteenth century in Great Britain.

  • Nineteenth Century Scholarship Online

    NINES is a federated search across a number of related digital projects around the nineteenth century. It includes access to curated digital correspondences to major poets including Swinburne, Blake, Dickinson, Hunt, Arnold and Arnold.

  • Phono Post

    A digital archive of recorded audio messages sent through via post sponsored jointly by Princeton, the Einstein Foundation and the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School.