Each episode you research and write will make use of both primary and secondary sources. The primary source will be the focus of your episode’s story, and you will use secondary sources to ground that story in a larger historical context.

How do I tell the difference between primary and secondary sources?

Primary sources are actual historical documents written during the period you are investigating. Secondary sources are books and articles written by historians at a later date. For example, a primary source from 1862 might be an article or an advertisement in the New York Tribune, while a book about the New York Tribune in 1962 would qualify as a secondary source. Similarly, a farm ledger, painting, or circus flier from 1890 is a primary source, while a secondary source on the same subject could be a book about selling cotton or nineteenth-century entertainment.

How do I identify good primary sources?

Start by searching the database (using the search field at the upper left corner of the page) to see what kinds of sources other students have used. You should see a wide range, from newspaper articles and advertisements to personal letters, store ledgers, and scrapbooks.

Next, investigate the primary source repositories in your school and neighborhood (your instructor may provide you with a list of primary source collections or locations). School or local librarians can often be extremely helpful in identifying the kinds of primary sources you need, but come prepared: be sure to fully explain the parameters of your project, the types of sources you are looking for (e.g. letters, diaries, or church records), and both the time frame and location you hope to investigate to the assisting librarian. You can also identify appropriate primary sources from home; many libraries and archives have online search engines. Search for citations that fit your assignment and jot down call numbers and other relevant information to bring with you to visit the library or archive later on.

Now you’re ready to explore the documents. Gather all your call numbers and notes and bring them to the archive, library, special collection, or museum.

Tips for researching in archives:

  • DON’T bring a ton of stuff with you to the archive. Most archives and special collections have special viewing rooms where book bags, purses, cell phones, notebooks, etc. are not allowed. Some have small lockers for bags but if the archive is busy, lockers may run out.
  • DO bring pencils and loose leaf notebook paper. Some repositories will only allow these two items in their viewing rooms (and a few even require you to use their specially provided paper).
  • DO check on the archive’s website (or call ahead) to see if they permit laptop computers in viewing rooms. Computers are often the easiest way to take notes and most repositories allow them. Some also allow digital cameras to take photo images of the documents. Many also allow you to photocopy their collections (usually for a price).
  • DON’T visit an archive half an hour before it closes. It takes time for archivists to call up documents and deliver them to your table. In addition, researchers are often required to start packing up and return documents 15-30 minutes before closing.
  • DO call the archive to find out the best time to come if you have flexibility. Some repositories are busy at a particular time of day and it may take more time to call up your documents during those hours. A few archives remain open later in the evening but with a limited staff that may be less knowledgeable about your research topic.
  • DO make use of the archivists’ expertise. The people who work in archives are frequently specialists in the documents you are looking at and can give you tips about the history of the primary sources.
  • DON’T call up ten or more collections at a time. Retrieving these documents takes time and you may only make it through two or three collections over the course of a few hours. Remember that you can always request more later on.

Once I have the document, what should I write down?

Start by writing the full citation of the document at the top of the page, including the call number (which will be important if you need to look at the document again). Refer to the Citation Guide for the information you will need.

Read the whole source through once to get a sense of what the document is about. This is also a good time to determine if the document will be useful for your project. If you are looking at a handwritten document such as a letter or diary episode, some of the text may be difficult to decipher. Don’t panic. If the whole manuscript is illegible, you may want to move on to the next document. If you can make out most of the words, try to figure out others by comparing individual letters in the words you can read. As a last resort, ask an archivist or librarian if he or she can help.

Next, write a two-sentence summary of the primary document underneath the citation. This summary should be an overview of what the document is about. For example, a summary might read:

Telegram from New York Governor Edwin D. Morgan to President Abraham Lincoln, Albany, July 14, 1862. Morgan tells Lincoln that Congress should not adjourn without providing for a draft law to fill up the army.
You may be submitting each summary to your instructor so use complete sentences and proper grammar.

Finally, if the document seems like a promising candidate for your episode, take more detailed notes on its contents. Depending upon the type of document you are looking at (eg: an advertisement vs. a five-page letter) your notes could take up several pages or only a few more sentences than the summary. Be sure to write down the names and places mentioned. When in doubt, take down more information since it may be difficult to return to the archive.

Okay, I have the primaries down, now what about secondary sources?

Before you begin searching for secondary sources, decide what the theme of each episode will be. This may be more difficult than it sounds: a long letter from a mother to her daughter in South Carolina in 1862 might include a discussion of the progress of the Civil War, the family farm, her financial situation, and a sick aunt all in its first few pages. Pick out the focus of the letter. What is the reason for writing? What is motivating the mother? If you can’t determine the focus, pick out the topic that interests you the most.

Your secondary source should be a book or an article on the subject of your episode’s theme. Take the 1862 mother/daughter letter, for example. Let’s say you pick out Civil War progress as your theme. You might look for a secondary source that discusses the Civil War in South Carolina in 1862 and its effect on mothers. Of course, it may be difficult to find a source that is specifically about each of these pieces: the Civil War, South Carolina, 1862, and mothers. Try a few combinations like the Civil War and mothers or the Civil War in South Carolina.

How do I find secondary sources about my theme?

You may find a secondary source in the database that fits your theme perfectly; feel free to use it. Note the authors and titles of books that are close to your topic but not quite the same. For example, if your theme is cotton farming in the 1820s and you see a book listed about cotton farming in the 1830s, jot it down; the author may have written an article or book about the earlier period or the 1830s book may cite sources about cotton farming in the 1820s. If you can’t find any secondary sources in the database about your theme, don’t worry. You will get to make the first episode about your theme!

Your next step will be to search your local or school library. If you already have a source in mind, you’re ready to pick up your book. If not, you may need to spend some time searching through the library catalog. A good way to start is with the “keyword” search. Enter your subject like “cotton farming” and see what pops up. If you have trouble finding books or articles on your subject, ask a librarian.

Finding scholarly articles online

There are several online repositories of previously published scholarly articles that you may be able access through your library. Double check with your instructor if you’re unsure whether an article qualifies as a scholarly source.

How do I decide if a secondary source is right for my episode?

Before you commit to using a secondary source in your episode, check to make sure it really does help provide the context for your primary source. Your secondary source should fit both the time period and subject matter. For example, let’s say your class episode assignment is to investigate New England in the 1820s and you have been assigned Massachusetts in 1821. You are trying to match a letter from a Boston storeowner about shoemaking with a secondary source. A source about shoemaking in the 1860s does not work and neither does one about tailoring in the 1820s. But if you cannot find a book about shoemaking, a source about the clothing industry in the 1820s might do the trick. Remember the first book or article you look at may not be the right one.

Don’t try to read every secondary source cover to cover. Instead, do a quick read to make sure you have the right source, then use the relevant chapters or sections to provide the secondary context for your episodes.

Quick reading techniques

  • If there is a blurb on the back, read that first to see if the book is really on the subject you thought it was.
  • Next, read the table of contents to get a sense of the book’s layout. If the chapter titles are unhelpful, see if there are subtitles on the first page of each chapter. Identify useful chapters for your subject.
  • Read the introduction and conclusion to get a sense of the point the author is trying to make. Jot this argument down and keep it in mind while you are reading other parts of the book.
  • Look through the index to see if there is a small set of pages devoted directly to your time period and location.
  • Scan relevant chapters of the book by reading the first and last sentence of every paragraph. Carefully read and note anything you might use for the episode itself.