Finding Historical Primary Sources

Definitions

Primary sources were either created during the time period being studied or were created at a later date by a participant in the events being studied (as in the case of memoirs).  They reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer.  Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period

A secondary source is a work that interprets or analyzes an historical event or phenomenon.  It is generally at least one step removed from the event is often based on primary sources.  Examples include:  scholarly or popular books and articles, reference books, and textbooks.

To find secondary sources in book form, search the library catalogs:   OskiCat or MELVYL  (about).  To find articles that are secondary sources, search an article database, such as America:  History and Life (US and Canada) or Historical Abstracts (world history).

Where are Primary Sources at UCB?

Primary sources may be physically located in any of a number of UC Berkeley Libraries or archival collections, or they may be available online.

Archives are collections of original unpublished, historical and contemporary material – in other words, primary sources.  Before you go to any archival collection on campus you can save time and effort if you first:

  • Note the hours of each location.   Explore the collection's web site and any special use conditions that may apply (registration, lockers, appointments, materials that need to be recalled from storage, restrictions on duplication, etc.)
  • BEFORE YOU GO:  Search the library catalogs:   OskiCat or MELVYL  (about) to find the titles and call numbers of specific items.
  • If you need to use manuscript collections, look to see if the collection has a finding aid.  Some finding aids list the contents of collections, box by box, folder by folder; others are less detailed.  Some finding aids are available online via the Online Archive of California  (the primary source itself may or may not be available online).

Please remember that not all primary sources are located in archives.  Search the library catalogs:   OskiCat or MELVYL  (about) and article databases and ask for assistance.

Primary sources on campus may be in their original format; examples might include:

Some primary sources have been reproduced in another format, for instance:

Online primary sources may be found via free web sites as well as via Library databases.

To Know Before You Search

Think about what types of primary sources might have been produced that would be relevant to your topic; think also about which persons or organizations might have produced materials. Some possible types of sources:

Books Photographs and images
Magazine and newspaper articles Cartoons and advertisements
Diaries and journals Movies, videos, DVDs
Memoirs and autobiographies Audio recordings
Interviews Public opinion polls
Letters Fiction
Speeches Research data and statistics
Documents produced by organizations Documents produced by government agencies, including congressional hearings and census records

Finding Background Information

Gather the information you have about your topic and consider what you still need to know before you start researching.  You can use this information in searching for primary sources.

  • Dates
  • Places
  • Names of persons involved
  • Names of organizations, government agencies, societies, etc.

Reference works and secondary sources can help you find background information on your topic.  You may find reference sources by:

  • browsing the reference collection at the appropriate campus library
  • searching by the appropriate subject headings and adding additional subject terms such as:  encyclopedias, dictionaries, bibliographies. Examples:  
    • Indians of north america encyclopedias
    • women diaries bibliography

The Bancroft Library - Overview

The Bancroft Library is one of the treasures of the campus, and one of the world's great libraries for the history of Bancroft Library interiorthe American West.

Some Bancroft materials are available online via Calisphere, which includes primary sources  from many California libraries and museums.

How to Use the Bancroft Library

1.  Be prepared! Read secondary sources and know something about your topic.

2.  Before you go:  Search OskiCat so you can bring call numbers with you. You can limit your OskiCat search to find materials at the Bancroft Library, instead of all campus libraries (choose "Bancroft Library" from the pulldown menu that says "Entire Collection."). Remember that there are primary sources in many other campus libraries as well.

Important:  if the item is in storage ("NRLF") and owned by The Bancroft Library, do not use the Request button in OskiCat.  Instead, use the Bancroft's online request form AT LEAST 72 hours in advance (they prefer a week.)

If you have 72 hours in advance, you can also use the online request form for materials not in storage; that will speed things up when you arrive. 

If the OskiCat record mentions a "finding aid" (an index) to a manuscript collection, you should use it to help you find what you need in the collection.  If the finding aid is online there will be a link from the OskiCat record, or you can search the Online Archive of California to find it. The finding aids that are not online are near the Registration desk at the Bancroft Library.

3.  Learn how to use the Bancroft Library. Read about Access (bring a quarter for lockers!) and Registration (bring two pieces of ID!). Remember to bring call numbers, titles, etc. with you. You will fill out a form to present to the Circulation Desk, and materials will be paged and brought to you.

4.     Read about the new camera policy ($10/day and no flash!) or about getting photocopies.

5.     Ask for assistance at The Bancroft Library's reference desk.

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Last Update: 28 Jan 14:51 | Tagged with: primary sources