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Primary Sources: Getting Started

A guide to finding and using Primary source materials

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Why do you need to use Primary sources, anyway?

Primary sources...it seems like almost every professor at one time or another wants students to use them, but have you ever wondered why?  And just what *is* a primary source, anyway?  This LibGuide has been designed not only to answer those questions, but also to provide you with some links to primary source material that will help you learn just how to use these unique items, and illustrate the wide variety of items available to scholars.  

Why use primary sources in the first place?  Primary sources have the unique distinction of being "windows into the past", providing first-hand accounts of events that happened in history.  They provide an unfiltered look at the political, scientific, artistic, and societal achievements of the time, and also give context to the attitudes and thoughts of the people who lived through these events. Working with these documents and artifacts can give a student or researcher the sense of actually "being there", something that second-hand or secondary sources just can't provide, and can give students a broader sense of the continuum of history and how they fit within it.  Primary sources can:

  • Engage students - relate on a personal level, develop empathy for the human condition
  • Develop critical thinking skills - analyze data, develop inferences, and construct additional questions 
  • Construct knowledge - synthesize information from multiple sources

Source:  Retrieved from the Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/teachers/usingprimarysources/whyuse.html 

Organizing Your Sources

There are different ways to organize sources.  One basic division is between non-written artifacts (remains, buildings, coins, statues, clothing, etc.), and written documents (records, diaries, newspapers, treaties, etc.).  For most courses, you will only need to understand written sources.

Among written sources, historians usually assign three levels of relevance:  PrimarySecondary and Tertiary.  These categories take their names from the Latin for one, two or three steps removed from the original event. 

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Ann Merryman <br>Coordinator of Archives and Special Collection's picture
Ann Merryman
Coordinator of Archives and Special Collection
Contact:
864-503-5275
amerryman@uscupstate.edu
Office: LIB 273


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