Where to Find Primary Sources: Helping Students with Research

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  • 0:00 Information: It's Everywhere!
  • 0:51 Primary vs. Secondary Sources
  • 2:31 Common Primary Source…
  • 5:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

In this lesson, we examine primary sources, the difference between primary and secondary sources, and some of the best ways to find good primary sources.

Information: It's Everywhere!

Research has become an ubiquitous yet trivial matter. Knowledge is just a click away, thanks to the Internet. Want to find out who the signers of the Declaration of Independence were? Just look it up! How about who greenlit Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze? Just ask your phone! Really, we do need to know this. It's important to know who I should complain to about that travesty.

Okay, in all seriousness, the point I'm trying to make is that the Internet is a double-edged sword when it comes to research. Certainly there are now more resources available than ever before, but how do we know who to trust? It's important to know the different types of information available and how to discern what is and isn't trustworthy, and this lesson is going to examine primary sources and the importance they play in research.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Which do you think would provide more reliable information? A script from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II or a review of the movie? Obviously you'd trust the script more, right? Sure, it was a terrible film that made a mockery of a certain young boy's cherished childhood memories, but the script is an original account of the story. The script is what we would call a primary source, a document or physical object which was written or created during the event being researched. This differs from the review, which would be considered a secondary source, which interprets or analyzes a primary source. The difference is in the degrees of separation. The primary source is original, created or used during the event you're researching, whereas the secondary source is simply about the event you're researching and many times is subject to bias.

Now we need to figure out what exactly makes a primary source. There are many types of primary sources, but the three you're probably most likely to encounter are:

  1. Original documents, examples of which include speeches, manuscripts, autobiographies, film footage, or official records.
  2. Creative works, which could consist of paintings, novels, music, or art, which were created during the time you're researching are also primary sources.
  3. Artifacts, such as clothing, buildings, tools, or equipment.

The key to these being primary sources is that they were directly involved in the event or person you're researching. For example, there are tons of primary sources for the Civil War, including photographs of soldiers and citizens, written accounts of battles, as well as weapons and clothing worn during the time period.

Common Primary Source Locations

Now that we know what primary sources are, let's take a look at where we can find them. Hopefully this does not come as a surprise to you, but the vast majority of what you see on the Internet is not a reliable primary source. Have you ever been to Yahoo! Answers? I shudder to think of the misinformation available. Most of what you find through a common search engine will be secondary sources at best, some will be tertiary, and others will just be lies. So where should you look?

The library is probably the best place to conduct research. Not only are they nice and quiet, but the staff is usually very knowledgeable and helpful. By searching through the library's resources, you should be able to find primary sources, particularly autobiographies, diaries, letters, and copies of speeches.

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