Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Primary Sources for History Research

History enthusiasts and frustrated students trying to fill assignment requirements have both no doubt run into the problem of finding primary sources when doing research. Primary sources, materials which provide first-hand testimony about a topic, can take the form of manuscripts, images, audio recordings of speeches or songs, advertisements, and artifacts, to name a few. Far easier to track down are secondary sources; media which consists of someone else’s interpretation of a primary source. Not only is it fascinating to critique a primary source, but this kind of perusal make it less likely that others’ interpretations will cloud one’s own thoughts and opinions. But where can researchers find this kind of information in the first place? Luckily, the internet age has saved students a trip to locations such as Washington, D.C. for the purpose of sifting through stacks of papers and reels. The websites below allow users to view primary sources in a wide array of formats covering countless topics.

The Library of Congress 

Unfortunately, many of the tantalizing primary resources housed within the Library of Congress are either unavailable online, or else available in a format which makes them difficult to use; for example, most photographs and drawings are displayed only as thumbnails which cannot be enlarged. For this reason, using the search function on the homepage will likely be a less rewarding experience than using the wonderful teachers’ page for access to helpful starting points for research. From here, users can browse collections of fully accessible resources, organized by commonly studied themes (e.g. advertising, civil rights, wars and the home front), topics (e.g. maps and geography, religion and philosophy), or U.S. state or source sets (e.g. the Dust Bowl, baseball, immigration). Types of resources include photographs, original documents, video clips, sheet music, and audio files.

The National Archives

Drawings, artifacts, manuscripts, and more are available through the National Archives’ Online Public Access function. Users can take advantage of the sophisticated Advanced Search options to narrow down their results, and it’s easy to zoom in on most images and documents for close scrutiny. The National Archives features a more productive search engine than the one used by the Library of Congress,although it lacks the insight of the thoughtfully grouped collections available through the library.

Famous Speeches

If it’s American oratory you seek, look no further than the American Rhetoric website. Transcripts of nearly all of the famous and influential speeches that have shaped US history can be found here, and some audio recordings are even available.

Repositories of Primary Sources

A repository of primary sources, hosted by the University of Idaho, lists over 5,000 links through which researchers can access holdings of millions of primary resources in all kinds of formats. It includes repositories throughout the world and therefore contains more information than most American collections, but the foreign links to which it points are often not written in English. This is not true of all foreign links, however; and, of course, English-speaking users may find the resources focusing on the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand to be useful, as well.

Primary Sources on the Web

Primary Sources on the Web lists resources divided into two categories: US History and World History. Users can navigate through topics pertaining to many chapters in world history in English, and there are wonderful collections of images and documents available.

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