What is a primary source?
Primary sources come in a wide variety of formats, but they all have one thing in common: they are original, unfiltered materials from a specific time period or event. More detailed definitions of primary sources can be found in the following publications:
Types of primary sources
Here is a list of common types of primary sources. This is by no means a comprehensive list. Explore the catalog links to examples of primary sources. Feel free to use them as a starting point to query the catalog for primary sources relevant to your topic. You can replicate these subject searches in WorldCat, which also uses the Library of Congress subject classification scheme. Expect a larger number of hits because WorldCat includes library holdings worldwide.
Diaries, journals and excerpts of diaries are not just found in archives and attics, but are also published in books. The Library has diaries of famous people, diaries from classes of people such as women or soldiers and diaries from different geographic areas. If you are lucky, you may even be able to find English translations of diaries written in a foreign language.
subject search: diaries AND "Louis Philippe"
subject search: diaries AND women
subject search: diaries AND Germany
- Newspapers and magazines
The Library has access to a large number of newspapers either in digital of microform. Check the catalog for newspapers of interest to your topic and verify whether the Library has access to the relevant time period or browse the list of digitally available newspaper titles and collections available on the Library's web site. You may also be able to request a month or two of a newspaper on microfilm through interlibrary loan.
subject search: Ireland AND newspapers
Letters are described in the Library of Congress subject thesaurus with the term "correspondence." Find letters published in books with the help of the online catalog. Include the names of the correspondents in your search query or search by social status and/or occupation.
subject search: lawyers AND "united states" AND correspondence
subject search: soldiers AND correspondence
subject search: Gonne AND Maude AND correspondence
Please note that the Library of Congress subheading -autobiographies is used exclusively for theoretical works about autobiographies. An author search is generally the best way to find published autobiographies. The library's biographical dictionaries often identify published autobiographies. Alternatively, autobiographies can also be found with the terms memoir as part of a keyword search and/or personal narratives as part of a subject search.
author search: Frederick AND Douglass
keyword search: memoirs AND politicians
subject search: "personal narratives" AND Vietnam
- Personal narratives
Personal narratives is a catch-all phrase for memoirs and diaries in the Library of Congress subject heading scheme.
subject search: "personal narratives" AND Holocaust
subject search: "personal narratives" AND prisoners
Transcripts of famous speeches.
subject search: speeches AND Martin AND Luther AND King
- Travel narratives
Many travel narratives have been penned with future publication in mind and are hence widely available. Travel narratives may also consist of excerpts from letters and diaries. Include the designated Library of Congress subheading for travel narratives, which is "description and travel" into your search query and note the difference in the number of results when using "description and travel" versus "travel narratives":
subject search: Russia AND "description and travel"
keyword search: "travel narratives" AND russia
"Sources" is a commonly used Library of Congress subject heading to describe all kinds of primary sources.
subject search: sources AND "cold war"
subject search: sources AND suffrage
Research based on manuscripts can be time-consuming and expensive if the manuscripts in question are only available in distant archives. Today, an ever increasing number of manuscripts can be found online in digital form. Many libraries and archives have digitized their rare materials to make them more accessible. Examples include the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Villanova's own digital library. Manuscripts are sometimes also available as facsimile editions in ordinary library books. The catalog records of such published reprints of manuscripts often include the subject "early works to 1800." Below are some suggestions on how to find manuscripts in the catalog.
subject search: "manuscripts medieval"
subject search: manuscripts AND spain
subject search: "illumination of books and manuscripts"
- Early works to 1800
A Library of Congress subject classification catch-all for books written prior to 1800. Note that the catalog record may show a much more recent publication date, since these books are generally only available as reprints outside of archives.
subject search: Virginia AND "early works to 1800"
subject search: reformation AND "early works to 1800"
- Other subjects for primary sources in the Library of Congress subject thesaurus include interviews, suveys, maps, pamphlets and treaties.
Primary Sources in Falvey
Primary sources come in a wide variety of formats and can be located with the help of many different library resources. Here are a few suggested starting points. This list is not comprehensive and you should consult with your professor or a librarian about other resources.
Evaluating primary sources
- How to read a primary source
Research the author and publisher as well as the facts described in the source with due diligence. Apply the same scrutiny to primary sources published on the web.
- Is it fiction or truth?
Anything with a P call number should be approached with caution when it comes to primary sources. Large parts of the P class are dedicated to fiction. A notable exception in respect to primary sources are the autobiographies, diaries and correspondence of novelists, playwrights and poets. These are shelfed together with their literary works.
Make an appointment to meet with Jutta
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You can also email me directly.
Director of Academic Integration
Falvey Library, Villanova University
800 Lancaster Avenue
Jutta Seibert is the subject librarian for History and is available for research consultations, instruction, curricular support & purchase requests.