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History 356 -- Riggs

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?

Three Steps to Finding Primary Sources on Google

Search Terms

Make a list of search words and phrases related to your search. You will edit and refine this list as you go through your search process and learn more. 

Things to consider:

  • Terms may have changed over time. For example, "The Great War" was used in the time of WWI. 
  • Be prepared to find and use terms (in searching, not in writing) that are outdated or offensive. 
  • Think about non-academic terms that might be used.

Date Range

  • Create a timeline and plot the date ranges by key events. 
  • Add 70 years to account for memoirs, interviews and reflections.

Google Advanced Search

Use domain limiter (.org, .edu, .gov) - but be careful. These sites could still be business or political sites masquerading as information sources.

Additional primary source search terms to try if needed:

  • "special collections"
  • "digital exhibit"
  • "teacher's kit"
  • library
  • museum
  • manuscripts

Or, try these format specific search terms:

  • "archival footage"
  • ephemera
  • ledgers
  • newspapers

source: Robin M. Katz, How to Google for Primary Sources. (Click for additional search terms.)

To evaluate your sources, go as far as you can. Look for:

  • The repository - is it trusted organization or agency?
  • Collections - are there related sources that may be helpful?
  • Metadata - for context and further information
  • The source itself. Can you watch/download/read/see it?

source: Robin M. Katz, Evaluating Primary Sources Online. (Click for more.)

Searching the CSUSM Library Catalog

You can find primary sources in the library book collection in either collections (frequently called anthologies) or included within secondary source books as illustrations, appendices, or excerpts (quotations from a larger source.) 

Quoted pieces from a larger document are not ideal primary sources, in the event you find a 'piece' of a larger source item in a book, whenever possible go to the original document. Find the information in the footnote or bibliography. If you need help locating the item, of course, ask for help! 

The search video below demonstrates looking for a diary which is one form of primary source. For other types of material that you can use in your search strategy, refer to Primary Source Types for a list of ideas. 

Primary Source Search-Catalog Example

This demonstrates a search with limiting to ebook format only as hardcopy materials cannot currently be accessed in the CSUSM Library. 

If you do see a print work that you want, request the item and we will get you an ebook copy if one is available. Be sure to allow plenty of time (2 weeks) for processing. 

The Web as a Primary Source

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