This is the "First Steps in Seeking Primary Sources" page of the "Primary Sources" guide.
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Primary Sources  

This guide explains the nature of primary sources, in the context of history. It tells where and how they can be found and provides links to digital collections of primary sources.
Last Updated: Jun 1, 2015 URL: Print Guide RSS UpdatesEmail Alerts

First Steps in Seeking Primary Sources Print Page

Things to do BEFORE you start searching

Think about your topic before you start typing words into databases and search engines. Knowing the answers to the following questions will give you lots more terms to search for. Think like a news reporter and sniff out the leads.

WHO are the key players?

Is one person at the center of attention for my topic? Did that person write anything—a diary, letters,

Who are the movers and shakers?

Are there movements (such as civil rights) or organizations that are relevant to my topic?

Who would have been interested enough to write about my topic?


WHERE did things happen?

U. S.?  France?  Sylva or Cullowhee?


WHEN did this go on? And how long did it last?

Was it a specific year?

Was it a specific date? Or was it a long span of time?


WHAT happened?

Is there a particular event that is important for my topic?


What is the broad context of my topic?

Examples are agriculture, civil rights, military history.



Will the primary sources be in English? If they’re in French (think Marie Antoinette), can I read them? Can I get them?


HOW do I find the answers to these questions?

Secondary sources: books about your topic, journal articles

Reference books—specialized encyclopedias usually

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