Skip to main content Skip to navigation
Roots of Contemporary Issues Writing and Citation Guides

While historians rely on the work of other historians (secondary sources) to ask original questions, build their own narratives, and shape their own arguments (as you’ve done so far), historians also do a great deal of their own interpretation of what is called primary source material. Primary sources are original, first-hand accounts of the time period under consideration, usually produced during or close to that time period. While not exhaustive, this source guide offers examples and definitions of primary and secondary sources.

For the purposes of your research assignment in the Roots of Contemporary Issues, you should consider these two general kinds of primary sources:

Documentary Primary Sources. Historical documentary sources can be quite useful as primary sources. These include newspapers and magazine articles produced during the historical period in question. While one might hope that documentary sources are free of bias, prejudice, etc., they seldom are. Indeed, that can make them all the more interesting. In order to select a historical documentary primary source, locate a newspaper or popular magazine article written during the historical period you intend to study.

WSU Libraries has a number of databases to help you find full-text accessible documentary sources. To begin, go to Historical/Older Newspapers and select a database (left side box). Each database is different, so you’ll have to familiarize yourself with how to search. The Times of London and the Historical New York Times will likely be the most helpful. Keep in mind that when searching for older material, words have changed. For example, you’re not going to find much on “nuclear bombs” in the pre-1960s press. However, you’ll find information on “atomic bombs,” because this was the more common descriptor of the time. Likewise, you may need to broaden the scope of your topic. For example, if you’re researching intellectual property on the Internet, you’re going to have to think about intellectual property law in the pre-Internet era. The point here is to be flexible with your search terms, and if one database does not yield fruitful results, try another one. Research is a trial and error process. [see Part III Tutorials]

Non-Documentary Primary Sources. Non-documentary primary sources can be either print (diary, letter, speech transcript, interview transcript, personal papers, etc.) or audio/video (historical footage, historical film, music recording, recorded interview, etc).  Still visual images (historical maps, photographs, paintings, album artwork) can be primary sources as well, but you may only use them in addition to written or audio/visual primary sources for this assignment. If you choose audio/visual sources, you must be able to embed a working link to the source in your project.

WSU Libraries has access to a range of non-documentary primary source material in many disciplines, including history (consult Collections of Primary Sources). Most of these collections provide primary sources for deeper historical coverage.  The guide includes a link to the WSU Libraries’ Manuscripts, Archive and Special Collections (MASC) department which features prominently the history of the Pacific Northwest. Explore the links in the Collections of Primary Sources and MASC websites to try to find a non-documentary primary source for your topic.

Here are four other resources that may be useful in finding non-documentary primary source:

The Making of the Modern World = Contains over 62,000 titles from 1450-1914, you may want to limit to English.

Search It (search from the Libraries’ Homepage) = find historical primary sources with a search like this: your topic AND (diar* OR letter* OR interview* OR speech*). [see Part III Tutorials]

U.S. Congressional Serial Set = Put your topic keyword(s) in the text box, you can change the “in Citation Text” pull-down select to “in Title” to narrow your search. Any topic relevant document you find in this database should be a primary source.

Academic Search Complete = Put your topic keyword(s) in the top text box, then put (diar* OR letter* OR interview* OR speech*) in the second box. You can change the “Select a Field (optional)” pull-down menu item to “TX All Text” to broaden your search as needed. Do not use newspaper, magazine or journal articles.

You may also find it possible to locate historical primary sources in the bibliographies of the scholarly journal articles or monographs you’ve previously collected.