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History 356: Culture and Identity in Latin America

Tools and tips to locate secondary, primary and visual resources on Latin American history.

General Guidelines for Primary Source Research

Keep in mind that, as with all information, primary sources may be biased and/or incomplete. Editors, authors and compilers choose what to include and exclude. Memories become fuzzy or unclear, and are always subjective. All creators have bias. 

In U.S.-based archives, you are more likely to find archives that reflect the dominant (white Eurocentric) culture. It takes money, time and physical space to create and collect archival resources, even if they weren't intended as such from the moment of creation. 

When you find a primary source focused on a non-dominant group, examine it closely. Who created this resource? What was the power hierarchy between the creator and the subject?

What is a primary source?

Primary source material is essential to the historian but they are not necessarily easily identified in the vast amounts of information available.  

A good definition from the Research Users Services Association's helpful guide Primary Sources on the Web: Finding, Evaluating, Using states "Primary sources are the evidence of history, original records or objects created by participants or observers at the time historical events occurred..." [emphasis mine]

There is leeway in this definition as materials created well after the event such as oral histories or memoirs will also be considered primary source since the person who experienced the event is the one recording the oral history or writing the memoir. Just keep in mind, that the longer it has been since the event, memories become increasingly selective. 

Even with primary source material, ask yourself if what you have is complete or biased in any way. If you are looking at a set of letters or a published memoir, consider how the editor or compiler made decisions about what to include. It may be certain materials were not included to portray a person or event in a certain light, material was considered irrelevant, or new evidence has come to light since the publication of the source you found. 

Primary source material may be found within what appears at first glance to be a secondary source. Sometimes a secondary source item will look like a primary source. When in doubt, ask for help! 

Social Media as a Primary Source

In many cases, social media can be considered a primary source, but must be evaluated carefully.

What is the source?

  • An original post
  • A repost
  • Comments
  • Hashtag results
  • A profile

Is it a primary source?

  • Whose voice is this?
  • When was it created?

What is the source itself?

  • Is it a clip from original footage? One photo that is part of a larger collection? A soundbite from a video?
  • Can you get to the original source? Do you have permission to use it?

Document it.

  • Get screenshots, links, creator names and any other relevant information.

Evaluate it.

  • Is the source reliable?
  • What bias exists?


Source: Robin M. Katz, Evaluating Primary Sources Online: Social Media

Types of Primary Sources

These are some possible categories/formats of materials you might find. Of course, technologies available at the time of the event will determine some categories: Film newsreels are not going to be found if you are searching the Dark Ages! 


  • Newspapers
  • Memoir
  • Diary or diaries
  • Letters (note the term 'Correspondence' is the LoC subject heading subdivision) 
  • Maps
  • Personal narrative (this is a LoC subject heading subdivision)
  • Journal (not the scholarly publication, but more like a diary) 
  • Government reports and publications
  • Oral history transcriptions

Image or sound file

  • Photographs/slides/prints
  • Paintings and drawings (may be a high-quality photograph)
  • Newsreels 
  • Television shows
  • Newscasts
  • Music recordings and videos
  • Oral history recordings

Realia (objects) 

  • Artwork
  • Buildings
  • Toys and games 
  • Clothing
  • Furniture
  • Souvenirs
  • Scrapbooks
  • Ephemera (items created for short-term or one-time use such as flyers, brochures, ticket stubs)