Primary sources are historical records produced by people who witnessed an historical event and recorded or wrote about it. These records can include letters, diaries, unpublished writings, audio and video recordings, posters, and artifacts.
In the case of organizations, primary sources are documents created by the organization in the course of running the organization. These documents can include annual reports, internal memorandums, letters, audio or video recordings, promotional material, and artifacts.
Primary sources help modern researchers interpret past events in the context of the period in which it took place. They can also offer insight into the personal, social, religious, and political views of individuals who experienced the event.
For organizations, primary sources can provide a glimpse into the decisions taking place behind the scenes which affected the direction of the organization. They can also illustrate the history of the organization and its development over time.
Secondary sources are documents created by people removed in time from an historical event, or who were not present when the event happened. Secondary sources may include reactions and opinions of people far removed from the event being studied. Samples of secondary sources include textbooks, biographies, essays, and literary criticism.
Manuscript collections or archives of organizational records often include some of the following keywords in their titles or content descriptions. By including these words as keywords in a search, you have a better chance of finding collections of historical documents:
Published Books and Articles
Many published secondary sources will include a Works Cited or Bibliography of the books, articles, and manuscript collections used by the author. Primary sources are frequently listed together and will include the name of the collection, the name of the institution which owns the collection, and the city and state where they are located.
Library catalogs contain records for books, journals, databases, and other collections owned by a specific library. Some catalogs, such as OCLC's WorldCat, will include records for items held by thousands of libraries. Depending on the catalog's default search, the search results may include a wide variety of different formats. To limit your results to manuscripts, look for a way to limit your search by type of material such as "archival" or "manuscript." Switch to advanced search for more search options.
See the "Searching ACORN" tab for tips on searching locally owned collections.
See "Searching WorldCat" for tips on searching for items held by other libraries and institutions.
Depending on the size of the institution, some libraries and archives will list their manuscript and archival collections online so that researchers can find them more easily. Lists of collection contents -- known as finding aids or research guides -- may also be available online. These guides often provide a box by box list of what's in the collection, making it easier to find specific documents.
Some websites also provide lists of repositories within a geographic area or within a subject specialty.
See "Searching Online" for more tips on finding resources online.