Many assignments for JHU courses require students to find and use “primary resources.” What the heck are primary Photo of old documentsresources, and how in the world do you find them? This is the first of 2 blogs that will help answer these questions.

Basically, primary sources are documents, images, artifacts or other material witnesses of a particular time and place. Created at the time of an historical event, they allow the researcher to catch a glimpse of the past. Some examples include:

  • Photographs and other images
  • Diaries,¬† letters, manuscripts, and other original documents
  • Newspapers and magazines and other published material from a time period
  • Audio and video recordings
  • Artifacts of all kinds: physical objects, buildings, furniture, tools, appliances and household items, clothing, toys.

Valued as verbal, visual or material vestiges that connect us somehow to the past, primary sources can be said to be “the real thing.” Often unique or rare, they offer the researcher fascinating insights, and a means to really make their work come alive. Luckily, they are also often converted to digital format.

How to find these treasures? The easiest way is to start with our own online database lists. Digital primary sources are listed in many subjects under the heading Texts, E-texts or Primary Sources. Look for Historical Newspapers and Periodicals as well in some subjects. The databases Archive Finder and ArchiveGrid are indexes to primary source material. You can search by keyword Рsubjects or names Рto find interesting and far-flung stuff. And of course the online research guides by subject will also point you to digital archives of primary sources.

It is interesting to note that many of these digital archives are actually large microfilm collections that have been digitized. Microfilm was an early preservation medium that allowed researchers to have access to unique, fragile or difficult-to-find material. The digital age has simply “translated” it into a more flexible medium. The large databases Early English Books Online, Eighteenth Century Collections Online and Making of the Modern World are examples of microfilm sets that have been digitized. Coming soon: The Nineteenth Century.

And some very important primary resources are still in microfilm. The seminal Landmarks of Science is essential to the field of history of science and still only in microform. A few more microform sets include:

Ask the appropriate Subject Librarian about other digital or microform primary sources. And stay tuned for more on finding the real thing.


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