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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 are called primary sources. Primary sources are original, first-hand accounts of the time period under consideration, usually produced during or close to that time period.

One extremely useful kind of primary sources are news articles published during the time you are studying.  WSU Libraries has a number of databases to help you find these kinds of 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, the meaning of words have changed, or authors might have used different terms that you would not use today. 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. You might get some good ideas for what words people used to describe your topic from quotations in the books and journal articles on the topic you have already read.  Try to 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]

News articles are not the only kind of primary sources of course. You might find all sorts of records from the past, including diaries, letters, the transcripts of speeches, or interviews, for instance. You could also find historical films, music recordings, or video news coverage.  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. But a great picture could help you liven up your research paper or clarify an important point!

WSU Libraries has access to a range of 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. Here are four other resources that may be useful in finding  primary sources:

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 great primary sources in journal articles or monographs you’ve previously collected! Check their footnotes or bibliographies! You can save a lot of time by learning from what earlier researchers have already done!