How to Find and Use Primary Sources

How to Find and Study Primary Sources

This blog post appears as part of Exploring the Writing Process with Primary Source Materials. Funded by a grant from the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources program, Exploring the Writing Process with Primary Source Materials complements classroom writing instruction with activities using primary source materials from the Library of Congress’s digital collections that inspire, motivate, and empower students to write.

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Primary sources are original documents that provide information about a time or an event as the event is occurring. Primary sources are fantastic learning materials because they share unique knowledge and perspectives. We as learners are able to study times, places, and events through the eyes and reactions of people living at that time.

Primary sources exist across many subjects, including American literature, and can include materials like journals, drafts, and letters. Primary sources can teach us about an author’s writing process. We can learn about an author’s inspiration or motivation, how ideas are first formed, and how writing changes and evolves over time. Importantly, we can also study primary sources to learn more about ourselves as aspiring authors. What can we learn from an author’s writing process that we can use in our writing? What can we learn to help us become better writers?

The Library of Congress Digital Collections home page showing the database with items on the right and categories on the left
The Library of Congress Digital Collections homepage is a great place to start finding primary source materials

Finding Primary Sources Through the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress offers many digital collections filled with primary sources that can help us learn about literature and writing. You can find various examples from the LOC’s collections in the resources on our website, but you also may be curious to look for other examples of primary sources on your own. What are some of the best ways to find primary sources? Here are some tips:

Where to Start

The Library of Congress has a homepage for their digital collections. A collection is a group of materials that are presented together due to shared characteristics or features. For example, collections can feature materials created by one person, or collections can offer materials created by different people that discuss a shared topic. All of the Library of Congress’s digital collections can be found on the homepage along with a brief description that tells you what type of materials or sources that you may expect to find in the collections. The Digital Collections homepage is a good starting point when you want to browse. Think of browsing like window shopping: you are casually looking at items in a certain place without a specific goal in mind. Browsing the digital collections can give you a good idea of what type of materials are available or not, which is helpful knowledge.

Searching on the Library of Congress’ Site

When you begin searching, try to be as specific as you can be. It is okay if you do not have an exact name or title in mind, especially when you are just starting a project. However, it is helpful to provide as much information about your search as possible. For example, pretend that you want to study first drafts from American writers. You decide to go to a library, and you tell the librarian, “I’m looking for primary sources.” Because this question is broad, the librarian will most likely have a lot of questions to ask you before they are able to point you in the right direction.

  • Some questions could include: What format of primary source do you have in mind? Could it be maps, manuscripts, videos, etc.? Is there a specific time period that you are looking for? What type of authors are you looking for? Think about why the librarian would have to ask you these questions. If you provide no information other than “I’m looking for primary sources,” you could receive a map from 16th century France, which is a primary source but would not be considered helpful if you are looking for drafts from American writers.
  • Now picture yourself telling a librarian, “I’m looking for first drafts from American writers.” Now the librarian has more information about your goal. They know the format that you are looking for (manuscripts or papers), the type of material (first drafts), the type of author (writer), and the location of the search (American). While the question is still broad, the librarian will at least have a better place to start. This approach is the same when using a search engine: the more information that you are able to share with it, the more likely and quickly that the search engine will be able to find relevant information for your search.
The Library of Congress Digital Collections page, with a dropdown menu open next to the search bar. "Manuscripts/Mixed Material" is highlighted in the menu.
The dropdown menu next to the search bar on the Library of Congress site can be useful for finding the type of material you are looking for.
  • The drop down menu features multiple kinds of formats. Format refers to what kind of object that a source can be. Some examples of formats are film and movies, audio recordings, maps, and photographs. When you select a type of format from the dropdown menu, you are telling the search engine that you only want to see results that are that specific format. For example, selecting “Photos, Prints, and Drawings” as a format means that the search engine will only give you results that are photos, prints, or drawings while selecting “Films, Videos” as a format will only produce sources that are films or videos.
  • When researching for primary sources in literature, I highly recommend selecting “Manuscript/Mixed Material” in the dropdown box. “Manuscript/Mixed Materials” often refer to paper sources, documents, or other texts. Sources like drafts, revisions, letters, and journal entries are very often labeled as “Manuscript/Mixed Materials.” For example, if you are wondering if the website has drafts by Langston Hughes, select “Manuscript/Mixed Materials” from the dropdown menu and then type “Langston Hughes” in the search bar. When you search this, the first result is a draft of Hughes’s poem, “Ballad of Booker T.”
  • On the Digital Collections homepage, the default type of format selected in the dropdown box is “Digital Collections.” Searching by “Digital Collections” is helpful if you are looking for a specific collection or if you are looking to see if a certain topic or author has their own digital collection. However, searching by “Digital Collections” will not show you individual items, and you will have to do some additional searching on your own if you are looking for specific items within a collection. For example, searching “Langston Hughes” under “Digital Collections” produces one result, a collection titled “Zora Neale Hurston Plays at the Library of Congress.” This collection may have an item by Langston Hughes, but you have to search through the collection to find it yourself; the search results will not do it for you.

Narrowing your search can be very helpful. There is a column on the left side of the LOC’s page titled “Refine Your Search.” Depending on your search or where you are on the LOC’s website, the topics listed under “Refine Your Search” may change, but the concept of this column remains the same: selecting a topic helps narrow your search. When you select a topic under “Refine Your Search,” the search engine looks for results only within the topic that you have selected.

A search on the Library of Congress site for Manuscripts/Mixed Material. It has been narrowed by the subject "American Literature" and the refine your results menu is circled in red.
Refining your search on the Library of Congress website can make the process more manageable.
  • Say you are looking for drafts by American authors. Searching “draft” under “Manuscript/Mixed Materials” produces over 6,000 results, which is quite a lot of items to go through! Not all of these results are relevant to your search either. You can see how drafts of laws and legislation may turn up in a search for “drafts,” but obviously those results are not helpful when you want to see drafts by American authors. This is where narrowing your search is helpful.
  • Going back to our example, we would select “American Literature” under the “Subject” section in the “Refine Your Search” column. This tells the search engine that you are only interested in drafts that have been labeled as “Manuscript/Mixed Materials” and “American Literature.” With these new conditions, the search results drop to 555, which is way less intimidating than 6,000! This also increases the likelihood that the results will be of interest to us. For example, now the first page of results shows Walt Whitman’s drafts, which is absolutely relevant to your search goal of drafts by American authors.

Do not be afraid to ask a librarian for help! Sometimes, it is hard to find materials on websites. Sources may have names, subjects, or tags that are unfamiliar or surprising to us, which is why we might have problems finding these sources. Librarians can help you find materials on the website or have great searching strategies or tools that you can use in your quest. Best of all, librarians are always happy to help. You can access the Library’s help page here.

Studying Primary Sources

Once you have found a primary source in your search, now comes the next important step: studying it. Studying primary sources is different from studying secondary sources, like a textbook. For example, your history textbook can provide a lot of information about an event because your textbook takes perspectives and facts from multiple sources to form one story. A primary source provides one perspective. Primary sources are helpful at learning more about a topic or event, but they are unable to tell us a complete story. If you have never studied a primary source before, this way of studying may be new to you so we have provided some helpful tips as you study.

Examining the primary source itself is essential, but an important part of your study also comes from reading details about the source. Under every primary source, the LOC provides details about the item, such as who created the item, when the item was created, and a basic description about the item. This information provides context for the primary source, meaning that we now have a good idea about what things were like when the primary source was created. Knowing this information can teach us about the primary source as well as help us ask questions and spark our curiosity.

Studying and analyzing a primary source involves recording your observations and asking questions about the source. If you are relatively new to studying primary sources, below are some questions that you can use to get yourself started:

  • When was this primary source created? What was happening at the time this primary source was created?
  • What was the original format of the primary source?  
  • What do you know about the author? What would you like to know more about them after studying this source?
  • What is the author’s message? Why did they create this primary source?
  • Who was the intended audience for this source? Was it meant to be just for themselves, for specific people, or a public audience?
  • What were your reactions when studying this primary source? Were you surprised to learn anything?
  • What do you want to learn more about after studying this source?

Write down the answers to these questions, as well as any other reactions that you may have had when studying the primary source. As an added bonus, take your notes and look at other sources about your topic to see how your primary source supports or contradicts the topic.

With these tips, now you will be able to find and study primary sources on your own. Have fun exploring!

For some ideas on how to discuss or write about primary sources, visit Exploring the Writing Process with Primary Source Materials, a joint initiative between the American Writers Museum and the Library of Congress.

Ari Bachechi is the Data Operations Coordinator at the American Writers Museum

Written by Ari Bachechi

Ari started at the AWM in 2016 as an intern involved in multiple aspects of the museum. She has since moved into data analytics and management of the AWM Affiliate Museum Program. She graduated summa cum laude from Northeastern Illinois University with a B.A. in Anthropology and is currently pursuing her M.A. in Museum Studies from the CUNY School of Professional Studies. She previously interned at the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park.

Content created and featured in partnership with the TPS program does not indicate an endorsement by the Library of Congress.

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