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Primary Sources: Meaning, Reliability & Where To Find Them
By Kenneth Kolander, PhD
What is considered a primary source?
Primary sources are vital to historical research. Researchers, both professional and amateur, use them to reconstruct the past. A primary source is a document or object that was created contemporaneously with the time or event being studied. It can take many forms, such as a newspaper article, diary entry, map, poetry, song lyrics, artwork, personal correspondence, and more.
Where to find primary sources
There are numerous ways to locate primary sources. The easiest, most basic way to find a primary source is with a web search. If you have a specific primary source in mind, then search for the title, author, and/or subject of the primary source. If the source has been digitized, it should come up in the search. If you do not have a specific source in mind, but instead have a general idea of the type of primary source you want to find, then search for simple keywords. For example, if you are interested in the Civil Rights Movement and want to explore first-hand accounts, then search for “primary sources Civil Rights Movement.”
Many searches, such as one for the Civil Rights Movement, will return a massive number of possibilities. At that point, the challenge is to identify which sources are more reputable than others. Generally, education and government websites tend to have the most varied and trustworthy primary sources. Oftentimes, though not always, these websites end in .edu or .gov. Some organizations, such as the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, share primary sources with the public, and these websites end in .org. Websites that end in .com or .net are typically less reliable than the other sites, but can still offer exceptional primary sources.
Not all primary sources can be accessed online, though. In some cases, you may need to visit a repository, such as a library or archives, to view and find certain primary sources. It takes time and labor (and funding!) to turn existing collections into digital form, so certain institutions may not have all their files accessible via the web. The Harry Truman Presidential Library, for example, has not digitized all of Truman’s audio recordings that are preserved and listed as available on-site. But they are happy and willing to digitize a certain recording upon request. In other cases, a primary source may be so faded that a digital image fails to capture the essence of the source. That would require a person to physically travel to the location of the source to view it. But most of the time, primary sources are accessible on the web.
Are primary sources always reliable?
Once you have located a primary source, then you must determine the reliability and authenticity of the source. As mentioned above, look at the last letters of the url to determine the nature of the website. Next, consider the institution responsible for providing access to the source. Does it seem reliable? How authentic is the primary source? Are you able to access any credentials or information? Is there a contact address?
It is also important to question the primary source itself. Primary sources are not free from bias. A person created a primary source, and therefore the source, just like its creator, lacks complete objectivity. Primary sources do not tell us exactly how the past was, but rather, how someone interpreted the past as it was unfolding. It is up to the individual, then, to use resources like primary sources, along with secondary sources such as monographs or textbooks that put forward interpretations, to come to a clearer, more truthful understanding of the past.
How to find a primary source online
There are many reputable websites and physical locations to view primary sources. Two of the best are the National Archives and the Library of Congress. They both have specific web pages and search engines devoted to primary sources, which allows researchers to search for a wide variety of documents and themes.
As a diplomatic historian, I can recommend several locations and websites for primary sources. Probably the best is the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), which can be accessed online (https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments) or in hardcopy. This is the “official documentary historical record of major U.S. foreign policy decisions and significant diplomatic activity.” The record is organized, first, by presidential administrations, and therein, by both theme and geographic area. Researchers can access documents from as early as Abraham Lincoln’s administration. Additionally, the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA) and newspaper archives, such as the New York Times, offer a treasure trove of documents. But note that the DNSA and newspaper archives require a membership to access sources; FRUS, on the other hand, is free.
Another excellent collection of primary sources is the Congressional Record, which is “the official record of the proceedings and debates of the United States Congress.” The online version of the Record can be accessed online (https://www.govinfo.gov/app/collection/crecb/_crecb/Volume%20002%20(1874)) or in hardcopy. The first issue of the Congressional Record was compiled in 1873.
For those who are willing to travel, presidential libraries maintain massive collections of primary sources related to just about any topic imaginable. Some collections have been digitized, but most records need to be viewed on site. When dealing with matters of national security or sensitive information of some kind, a source may be classified or have redacted material. This can be quite frustrating. A researcher can file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in the hopes of getting at least a portion of a classified document. However, the relevant bureaucracy and sensitivity of the material can lead to an extraordinarily long wait period to access the information, assuming the request is approved at all. But for those who are hunting for a very specific piece of information, this may be the only avenue.
One additional archive that needs to be mentioned is the Israel State Archives (ISA). The ISA is in the process of digitizing all of its material, but it is a work in progress. For those who are interested in accessing Israeli primary sources, contact an archivist via email. From my experience, archivists are friendly and helpful. If the material you desire has not already been digitized, just submit a request and the requested material will be scanned and published online.