hen I tell my students primary sources should be a vital part of their research, I’m not just talking about when they are working on a nonfiction project. It is equally important to find accurate material when you are researching fiction. My current work-in-progress is set during the Space Race. Specifically, it takes place in 1969.
If you’ve seen Hidden Figures, you know something about how people in the US felt about the Soviet Union and the importance of reaching the moon first. But there were other things going on in the US at the same time. When Angela Mackintosh and I were discussing this, she mentioned Charles Manson. I know who Manson was, but I don’t remember people talking about him let alone any of the other things that must have been going on at that time. The Space Race was a big deal in our house.
To find out about people’s attitudes, I could read about the time period. After all, there are a lot of books published about the late 1960s. But I’m inclined to look for primary sources. To understand the value of primary sources, you first need to understand what they are.
PRIMARY SOURCES DEFINED
The simplest definition is that a primary source is a firsthand account. It represents the perspective of an eyewitness. This means that there’s no writer between the observer and the written account. If the text describes a historic event such as an election, it is written by someone who was there. If it is about scientific research, it was written by the scientists themselves.
There are a wide variety of materials that you can use as primary sources. Here are some of my favorites.
Diaries and Journals
If you are researching a historic event, some of the best primary sources are the diaries and journals written by people who were there. You can find unpublished manuscripts in archives and manuscript collections. Sometimes this will require a trip to where the document is housed such as the Missouri Historical Society Library and Research Center. Other times you can find these materials online or in print. One of my favorite series is the 11-volume Covered Wagon Women.
Correspondence includes not only the letters that people send each other but also emails and texts. Telegraphs and office memos are also correspondence. Correspondence of various kinds, including electronic correspondence, has found its way into archives. Fortunately, more and more of these materials are accessible online. For a perspective on what is available, check out the online offerings of FRASER, the economic archive of the Federal Reserve.
This is an incredibly broad category that includes things like birth certificates, census records, trial transcripts, case law, and other legal documents. I used trial and other legal documents when I researched Black Lives Matter and The Assassination of John F. Kennedy. Other government documents include various departmental reports that range from statistics to the results of official studies. Many official documents can now be accessed online. One place to find these is the Government Publishing Office.
The spoken word in the form of interviews, speeches, and oral histories is another primary source. An oral history is a recorded interview about a historic event. The topic of an oral history can be as simple as preparing meals for a family in the 1960s. Or it can be about geopolitical events such as reacclimating to civilian life following service in Vietnam. As a writer, you can create your own primary source by conducting an interview. An interview is an especially good way to fill in the blanks when you have access to an expert and are having a hard time finding information about a specific aspect of your topic.
Research Notes and Publications
Data collected by scientists and other researchers is another form of primary research. Sometimes research results can be found in libraries, research centers, or archives. More and more of this information can be found online. But it can also be accessed through published articles in academic journals. These publications are considered primary because they were written by the people who collected the data. There is nothing more rewarding than finding the details that you need in a dense academic article.
Some people don’t realize that maps are primary sources. In part, this is because maps are not reality. They represent the mapmaker’s first-hand interpretation of reality. Boundaries, what is labeled vs. what is left off, and even how things are labeled represent one person’s perspective on a carefully crafted landscape.
Photographs and Other Recordings
Both photographs and footage of live events are also primary sources. Studio photographs represent crafted, ideal depictions of reality. Snap shots and other casual photographs show how people dressed and celebrated as well as what someone found noteworthy. But photographs come with a warning, which leads us into the next section.
TRICKS AND TRAPS
Most research projects benefit from using primary and secondary sources in combination. Using secondary sources means that you don’t have to rediscover every bit of information. These sources are also a good way to compile a mass of background information more quickly than possible if you had to rediscover the primary sources.
Secondary sources can also help check your perception. Recently I was doing some research on Japan and texted my son about finding an image of a raccoon. He quickly texted back. "Not a raccoon." Because he was at work, I didn’t want to ask him what he meant so I Googled and Googled and Googled some more. Reading a variety of secondary sources, I soon found that among the animals native to Japan is the tanuki. The head and face look a lot like a raccoon, but the feet reveal that it is a canine. Photographs in isolation are easy to misinterpret.
Determining whether or not something is a primary source or a secondary source can be tricky. Take newspapers as an example. Some people try to make it easy. They point out that newspaper advertising and editorials are primary. Other pieces require research and interviews, so they are secondary. And that’s true as far as it goes especially if you are using material found in newspapers to research a contemporary event.
But a newspaper as a cultural artifact is a primary source. So is a magazine, a novel, or a television show, because these forms of media all show how people think.
What else can we use as a cultural artifact? I once went to an art exhibit about racial depictions. The displays were full of ads, children’s toys, book covers, decorated household goods like cookie jars, and so much more. Each item was an artifact that revealed how its creator and presumably its owner saw specific groups of people.
You may also see debates about whether documents in translation can be considered primary sources. When I first saw this in an online forum, I went to the experts—university libraries and librarians including those at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Harvard Library. Both sites stated that translations, edited collections, and excerpts are all primary sources.
One final warning, even a primary source can be biased. Bias occurs any time there is a slant for or against something. For example, someone who is biased against the Space Program might state in a letter that they think it is a waste of money. Someone who is biased in favor of the Space Program might write about the importance of pursuing space flight over spending the money on something else. Every source is biased in some way, and it is important to consider potential bias in deciding whether you want to use that source.
It doesn’t matter if it is something historic like the space race or an animal like the tanuki. A combination of sources is the best way to go. Secondary sources can give you breadth and depth. Primary sources reveal a firsthand take on your chosen topic.
Sue Bradford Edwards learned about primary sources when she was a graduate student in history and working in archaeology. In addition to finding archival material, she gathered oral histories on which she based her thesis. Sue has continued to use both primary and secondary materials in writing over 50 books for young readers and numerous articles. She is the instructor for: