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Introduction to Primary Source Research

Contains tips and tools for beginnnng research with primary sources.

Tips for Researching

What is your topic?

  • Determine what your research interests are, either a topic for a class assignment or a topic for personal research. What questions are you seeking to answer?
  • Creating a time estimated plan early in your project can help ensure there is enough time to thoroughly complete your research.

Beginning your Research

  • In order to determine what materials will best benefit your research it is important to narrow the scope of your research. This can be completed by research of secondary sources, articles, periodicals, books. IU’s library catalog and online databases can help this research. If you are unsure where to begin, consider checking a research guide that specializes in the subject you are studying. Footnotes, bibliographies, and references of relevant works are a good place to look for additional sources.

Archival Sources

  • Identify a collection which would contribute to your research. World Cat and Archive Grid can aid in finding materials globally and locally. Archives online includes a significant amount of the material accessible at Indiana University.
  • Create a list of materials you seek to access – make a note of title, contributor/author, collection ID or call number (any information that may aid in accession).
  • Contact the archives to discuss collections, access, strategies for research, ask questions, or schedule an appointment. Give the archives time to reply. This step may take longer than you’d like as providing access to particular materials may take time.
  • If possible, check reading room policies before your appointment.  Every archive has different policies and restrictions which may change your plan for researching in the archive. These polices can range from what is permitted in the reading room, to rules on handling material. Noting these procedures before your visit will allow you to be prepared to complete your research.

In the Archive 

  • As you have limited access to the materials, the notes you take in the archives become valuable to continued research. Some good archival research habits include:
    • Record the call number of each material you look at. This includes noting information on the collection, box and folder number, and item ID if available. 
    • Note basic information about the item or collection, like title and author, anything you may need for citations.
    • Make sure to differentiate your notes on different sources, this may seem obvious but is often forgotten and will make synthesis of your research challenging.
    • If you are taking notes on a computer, it may be useful to turn off auto correct – spellcheck may make corrections that are not authentic to the material you are citing.
    • If you are taking using a computer or taking photos, make a plan for how to organize your files so you can find them later.

Useful Terms for Searching

Finding primary source material in databases is not always intuitive. Here are some terms that material may be categorized under. These terms can help with searching or understanding finding aids. 

anecdotes
archives
biography
caricatures and cartoons
case studies
catalogs
comic books, strips
correspondence
description and travel

diaries
documentary films
exhibitions
interviews
manuscripts
maps
notebooks
personal narratives
photography

pictorial works
portraits
public opinion
songs and music
sources
speeches
sketchbooks
statistics
statutes