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History 131: U.S. History since 1877

Help in finding a photograph from US History post-Reconstruction and sources for your analysis.

Primary Sources

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. 

Searches including the term 'primary' will usually return an unsatisfactory result set. This is because it is actually difficult to label an item as primary--what a primary document is varies with the need of the researcher and the situation in which the item was created.

  • A photograph from 1911 of women soldiers in the Mexican Revolution is a primary source since the photograph was taken during the Revolution. 
  • A woodcut of Adelitas (women revolutionaries) created in 2010, while it may look old, is not primary and should not be used.

The only time the woodcut could be used as a primary source would be if you were writing a paper on the modern representation of women who fought during that war. This might be a paper on how memory alters or romanticizes the past and as that is not the point of this project in this class, do not use it.

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! 

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 for primary images. Instead you will find photographs of such such as paintings, carvings or tapestries.


  • 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 (may be of items such as paintings)
  • Paintings and drawings
  • 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)

President and First Lady Kennedy and First Lady at a folkloric dance performance, Mexico City, 1962.

Whenever possible, search a reputable collection for original, high-quality scans. You are more likely to find accurate information as well as usage guidelines.

A good quality site, such as university, museum or special collection archive, provides basic information such as artist/photographer, date and location. 

In addition, you may find helpful notes or description to place the image in historical context. Do not use this information as your secondary source as it will not have gone through the rigor of peer-review, but do use it as a 'launch pad' to understanding your image, its importance, and application to your historical topic. 

The links below are great starting points for finding primary source images:

Google Image Search

Google Images is one way to locate historical images but has some challenges as well. 

  • There is no way to limit the search to primary sources. 
  • You will find historical and modern images mixed together from sources ranging from hobbyist sites (Pinterest) to scholarly museum collections. 
  • What you see in Google Images may not be the entire original image. Clipping a piece out of a larger image alters the context and meaning. 
  • Do NOT cite Google Images as your source. You must follow the trail to the original digitized image source. 
  • Check for permissions. Finding it on the internet does not mean you have permission to use. Most institutions allow no-fee use for educational purposes such as student papers, but there are some that do not (Getty Images for one.) Others require you to request permission to use and will generally grant for student use.  

Here is a video on following a 'breadcrumb trail' in a Google Image search to a source you can cite.