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.

 Primary Sources and Web Resources

Aisle Say
Internet magazine of stage reviews and opinions. 

American Periodicals (ProQuest)
Provides access to the full-text of American magazines and journals published from the colonial period to the early 20th century.

American Theatre Archive Project (ATAP)
The American Theatre Archive Project (ATAP) supports theatre makers in archiving records of their work for the benefit of artists, scholars, patrons, and the public.

American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment 1870-1920

Black Drama, 2nd Edition (Alexander Street Press)
Contains the full text of works by playwrights from North America, English-speaking Africa, the Caribbean, and other African diaspora countries together with detailed information about productions, theaters, production companies, and other ephemera related to the plays. Many of the works are rare, hard-to-find, or out of print. Includes a large number of previously unpublished plays by writers such as Langston Hughes, Derek Walcott, Alice Childress, Amiri Baraka, Zora Neale Hurston, and many others. Coverage goes back to the middle of the 19th century.

DIDASKALIA: Ancient Theater Today

Early English Books Online (Chadwyck-Healy)
Provides access to digital page images of virtually every work printed in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and British North America and works in English printed elsewhere from 1473-1700. Includes books, pamphlets, manuscripts and newspapers. For searchable text of selected titles see Early English Books Online -Text Creation Partnership.

Early English Books Online - Text Creation Partnership
Provides access to fully searchable texts of a subset of Early English Books Online.

Internet Broadway Database

Irish Playography
The Irish Playography (1950-present) is an ambitious work-in-progress that seeks to provide a comprehensive list of modern Irish plays in a single searchable database.

Literature Online (ProQuest)
Features a digital library of English and American poetry, drama, and prose. Provides access to literary criticism indexed in ABELL and MLA International Bibliography and includes selective access to the full-text of academic journals. Also includes full-text access to a collection of dictionaries, encyclopedias, and biographical dictionaries.

Lortel Archives-Off-Broadway Database

The Lortel Archives, also known as the Internet Off-Broadway Database, provide a catalogue of shows produced Off-Broadway. For the purposes of The Lortel Archives, Off-Broadway refers to any production that has satisfied the following requirements:

  • Played at a Manhattan theatre with a seating capacity of 100-499
  • Intended to run a closed-ended or open-ended schedule of performances of more than one week
  • Offered itself to critics and general audiences alike


Luna: Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection
This database offers access to tens of thousands of high resolution images from the Folger Shakespeare Library, including books, theater memorabilia, manuscripts, and art. Users can show multiple images side-by-side, zoom in and out, view cataloging information when available, export thumbnails, and construct persistent URLs linking back to items or searches. 

Motley Collection of Theatre and Costume Design
The Motley Collection of Theatre and Costume Design is a valuable source of documentation on the history of theatre and is housed in The Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois. It is a rare collection of original materials on the theatre comprising over 5000 items from more than 150 productions in England and the United States. These materials include costume and set designs, sketches, notes, photographs, prop lists, storyboards, and swatches of fabric.

North American Theatre Online (Alexander Street Press)
Presents a comprehensive reference work on North American theater, covering authors, plays, theaters, production companies, and major productions from Colonial times to the present. Includes the full text of major reference works; also contains images of playbills, posters, photographs, and other ephemera.

Performing Arts Resources- Library of Congress
As a part of ongoing modernization, the collections on the Performing Arts Encyclopedia have been migrated to new presentations on the Library’s web site. The Performing Arts Encyclopedia has been retired, but research databases related to the performing arts that were featured on the PAE will continue to be available from a new page, “Performing Arts Databases.”  To search all Library collections, please visit loc.gov/search, or browse the full array of digitized collections at loc.gov/collections. You can also use the links below to go to the new presentations for single collections.

Play Index (EBSCO)
Indexes plays written from Antiquity to the present that have been published individually or reprinted in collections and anthologies since 1949. Covers plays written in or translated into English, including one-act plays, pageants, plays in verse, radio and television plays, and classic drama. Search for plays by title, author, subject, style, genre, or cast type.

Playbill On-Line

Playbill Vault
Playbill Vault is the largest source of information about Broadway people, shows, theatres, awards, Playbill covers and Who's Who biographies.

Portraits of Actors, University of Illinois
Portraits of Actors, 1720-1920, includes almost 3,500 pictures of actors — studio portraits and actors posing in costume for a particular role or performing a scene from a play. Dramatists, theatrical managers, singers and musicians are also included, but the majority are British and American actors who worked between about 1770 and 1893. Among the hundreds of actors included are: Sarah Siddons, Edmund Kean, John Philip Kemble, Edwin Booth, Edwin Forrest, William Henry West Betty, Charles Mathews, Dorothy Jordan, Frances Abington, and Ada Rehan. The images were digitized from etchings, engravings, lithographs, mezzotints, aquatints, wood engravings, photographs, and photomechanically-reproduced prints, all from the University of Illinois Theatrical Print Collection.

Records of Early English Drama (REED)
Records of Early English Drama (REED) is an international scholarly project that is establishing for the first time the context from which the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries grew. REED has for the last thirty-five years worked to locate, transcribe, and edit historical documents containing evidence of drama, secular music, and other communal entertainment and ceremony from the Middle Ages until 1642, when the Puritans closed the London theatres. Along with twenty-seven collections of records in print, with the most recent, Inns of Court, published in December 2010, REED is building a dynamic collection of freely available digital resources for research and education.

Talkin' Broadway

The Archive of Performances of Greek & Roman Drama (APGRD)
The APGRD is a pioneering international centre for research into performances of Greek and Roman drama worldwide, from antiquity to the present, on stage, screen and radio, in opera and dance.

The Interval
is a theatre website, founded to be a virtual home for female voices of the theatre, with the goals of changing the conversation around women in theatre by asking smart ladies smart questions for a smart audience; promoting gender parity in theatre; creating a place to explore the diverse nature of creativity, storytelling, and careers in the theatre; bridging the gap between Broadway and Off-Broadway; plays and musicals; and on-stage and behind the scenes.