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History Research Seminar: Best Practices for Students

This guide support students enrolled in the Research Seminars in the History Department.

Primary Sources

Primary sources are "first-hand" information, sources as close as possible to the origin of the information or idea under study.*

As upper-level history students, you very likely already learned about, searched for, and evaluated plenty of primary sources. Previous courses may have structured your assignments so there was a clear path between a collection of primary sources and finding what you need from these collections to complete your assignment. In research seminars, this "safety net" can feel like it has disappeared because you are conducting an independent research in the research seminars.   


To search on your own, tap into some of the lessons you learned about primary sources in History 100 and Writing 2. To do this, ask yourself some questions: What strategies for finding primary sources have I used previously? How is this assignment and topic different? What first-hand accounts do I want to find and evaluate? Which search tools (from the UCSC Library and elsewhere) are going to help you in this particular case? How do I know what I don't know about searching for sources? 


To answer these questions, let's digest Primary sources. I like the definiton (above) from UCLA because it highlights first-hand information and it's promiximity to the origin of the information or idea under study. Let's think about the ways primary sources might exist out there:


  • First-hand conjures up direct experience, for example correspondences, diaries, and so on. For undergraduate researchers this often means relying on digital archives collections, including the Library's Databases (here is a list for U.S. or non U.S. primary source collections) as well as the digitized collections of libraries worldwide (here's a primary source search engine for California (< this includes the primary sources) or U.S. libraries) that can be found online. 


  • Journalism and newspapers may cover first-hand information and ideas under study. This means using a library's historical newspaper databases, some of which go back to the 18th century and some of which provide international coverage.


  • Oral histories provide accounts of first-hand information (interviews with subjects conducted sometime after the event, sometimes decades), as do autobiographies. Over time, perspectives can color memories. UCSC has a collection of oral histories, many are streamable.


  • Movies, operas, works of art require more than just viewing or listening. These products were meant for public consumption, and that creates challenges for evaluating them as primary sources. Larger forces surround the creation and distribution of these products and getting at these complexities is important and possible! This will require additional and supplementary primary sources, for example newspaper accounts or interviews with the makers or audiences, or similar.


*Borrows from Articles, Books, and . . . ? Understanding the Many Types of Information Found in Libraries