In my last blog post (November) I set you on the path to creating a research plan. One of the most important components of such a plan is to think about what sources you will need for your research and consider who might have created them or who might have compiled the data that you need.
Brief overview of types of sources
There are two categories of sources: Primary and Secondary.
Primary Sources are immediate and first-hand accounts of an event or topic from people who had a direct connection with it. Primary sources can include:
- Texts of laws and other original documents.
- Newspaper reports, by reporters who witnessed an event or who quote people who did.
- Speeches, diaries, letters and interviews – what the people involved said or wrote.
- Datasets, survey data, such as census or economic statistics.
- Photographs, video, or audio that capture an event, documents, diaries, manuscripts, autobiographies, recordings, or any other source of information that was created at the time. Basically they are an original source of information about the topic.
Secondary sources are those that quote, or use primary sources. They can cover the same topics but usually add interpretation and analysis. Secondary sources can include:
- Most books about a topic.
- Analysis or interpretation of data.
- Scholarly or other articles about a topic, especially by people not directly involved.
- Documentaries (though they often include photos or video portions that can be considered primary sources).
For the most part, secondary sources are easy to find – just ask your librarian! Primary sources however are trickier. An important thing to consider about them is are they published or unpublished and who might have created that information? Thinking about this will help you find where primary sources might lurk. If you’re looking for tax records or census returns for example, those might be held in a government office, if you’re looking for letters or diaries or photographs, those will more likely be held in the collections of a historical society or local historical archive.
Published sources will likely be the easiest to locate because they were probably mass produced (like government documents, census returns, magazines, and newspapers.). Many of these items will be microfilmed or digitized and may be part of a service you can subscribe to like Ancestry.com or use with your library card. Sadly however, most published sources are still not digitized. To see them you’ll have to do research the old fashioned way!
These are my five free favorites.
Online Archive of California – The OAC is the best starting point for research-oriented users who want to go beyond what is available online and locate the actual, physical item. The OAC provides free public access to detailed descriptions of primary resource collections maintained by more than 200 contributing institutions including libraries, special collections, archives, historical societies, and museums throughout California and collections maintained by the 10 University of California (UC) campuses.
Calisphere – https://calisphere.org/
An excellent place to view online content: digital images and documents – primarily the digital content that is on the Online Archive of California. Here you can discover photographs, documents, letters, artwork, diaries, oral histories, films, advertisements, musical recordings, and more. The collections on Calisphere have been digitized and contributed by all ten campuses of the University of California and other important libraries, archives, and museums throughout the state.
Archive.org is a trove of digitized magazines, journals, and books in the public domain, municipal reports, city directories, audio recordings, videos and web pages. I use it to read historic periodicals and connect with the digital collections of large libraries like San Francisco Public Library’s History Room or the California State Library. Find what libraries you can connect with via their “American Libraries Collection” (from the home page, scroll down).
California Digital Newspaper Collection
This collection contains over 1,500,000 pages of significant historical California newspapers published from 1846-present, including the first California newspaper, the Californian, and the first daily California newspaper, the Daily Alta California. It also has issues of several current California newspapers that are part of a project to preserve and provide access to contemporary papers.
Ancestry is a subscription database that is designed for individual use however they have a “library” version that many local libraries subscribe to. It’s a database that you’ll have to use at your library’s site. It has unparalleled coverage of the United States and the United Kingdom, including census, vital, church, court, and immigration records, as well as record collections from Canada, Europe, Australia and other areas of the world!
Heritage Quest provides similar content
Breaking Down Brick Walls
Library catalogs aren’t perfect – in fact many of them only gloss the surface of what is in their collections. Try different words or look for friends, family and associates that may have had a relationship with your subject. I have been hugely surprised by what I’ve found just be widening my search a bit. Examine everything and everyone that has a remote chance of being relevant to your project.
When trying to find primary sources you must think like the people who lived in the time and place you are studying for example if you’re looking in newspapers from 100 years ago, they often used different terms or conventions than we use today. For example, when searching in newspaper databases, for a woman’s name, you should also look for her under her husband’s name. If you get stuck, revisit some of your favorite books on your subject and “train your brain” – relearn the terms, definitions, personal and place names associated with your subject.
Lastly, sometimes the answer doesn’t exist anymore but don’t lost hope. Move on to the next item on your research plan and revisit the issue after some time as passed. Perhaps you’ll gain a new perspective, think of a new angle to search from, or conclude that you don’t need that particular fact anymore to tell your story effectively.
Stay tuned for the next issue which will contain tips for planning a visit to an archive and consulting with a librarian about your topic.