Primary Sources

Information on primary sources—what they are, how to find them, and how to use and cite them.

Practical Considerations

Practical Considerations

Some types of primary sources can be readily found and used anywhere, for example printed primary sources like popular 19th century novels (most libraries have books by Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorn, and Jane Austen.)

Digital primary sources are also easy to access, whether they are freely available like those at the Library of Congress, or in subscription databases of digital primary sources purchased by JHU.

Other primary sources are rare, fragile, and not available digitally. We have many of these types of sources in our Special Collections and Archives. However, others may not be available at JHU or locally.

If you are just starting your research process, take some time to brainstorm what types of primary sources you will need to answer your research question. Then make sure you will be able to access the sources you need.

Identifying Keywords

Keywords are the central concepts or ideas that you are searching for--they could be people (Calico Jack, pirates), places (the south sea, Bermuda), or things (the jolly roger, astrolabes). But, they may also be concepts or ideas (egalitarianism, mercantilism).

One of the things to be aware of in keyword searching for primary sources is that your keywords need to match those in the primary sources in order to find the best results. Sometimes that may be a matter of finding the comparable term for the period you are interested in. Almost always, it means you should consider a list of synonyms for your keywords (pirate, buccaneer, sea rover, privateer). But, with primary sources, especially those from the 18th century or earlier, it also means contending with variation in spelling.

A researcher interested in hurricanes in the early Carribbean would need to not only use "hurricane" as a keyword but consider synonyms like whirlwind, tempest, storm, and squall. Furthermore, they would need to search for hurricane, huracan, furcanes, hurry-cano, or hurricano. Likewise, for whirlwind, they might need to search for whirlewind.

Accounting for variation in words and spelling from the start will help you find the sources you need. The tips below can help facilitate the process once you have identified your keywords and search terms.

Tips for Multiple Search Terms

Connect search terms with AND to narrow a search by requiring both search terms.

Connect search terms with OR to broaden a search by accepting results with either term.

Limit a search by using NOT to exclude results that contain the second term.

Phrase Searching

Utilizing a phrase search assures that your results prioritize or are limited to sources that use the two or more terms you search together as a phrase the way you intend, rather than finding results that have each of the words, but not necessarily together.

To search a phrase, place "quotation marks" around your terms.

Example: "jolly roger" will get you results about pirate flags but jolly roger without quotations will deliver you sources like the book Uncle Wiggly's Adventures, which happens to have the name Roger, and the term jolly in completely distinct parts of the book (which has nothing to do with pirate flags).

Wildcard Searching

Inserting a wildcard in your search helps to search for variations, and can be especially helpful when searching for primary sources that use a long s or to account for non-standardized spelling.

To use a wildcard, insert at question mark (?) in place of the letter or character you think could vary.

Example: p?rate will find both pirate and pyrate

Truncation Searching

Truncating your keyword allows you to search multiple variations of a word at once based on a shared stem or root.

To use truncation, insert at asterisk (*) at the end of your root or stem.

Example: buccaneer* will return results for buccaneer, buccaneers, and buccaneering

Example: mutin* will give results for mutinous, mutiny, mutinies, mutineer, mutinying, and mutinied

Using Subject Headings

Subject Term What Does It Identify? Used With What Other Terms? Example(s)
Archival Resources Brief descriptions of types of documents/historical records, about a particular place or topic, available at an institution or institutions Countries, etc.
Working Class--United States--Archival resources
Archives Collections of documents or historical records including notes, correspondence, minutes, photographs, legal papers Names of people
Corporate bodies
Educational institutions
Types of corporate bodies/educational institutions
Classes of persons
Ethnic Groups
King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968--Archives
Autographs Collections or discussions of the person's autograph or handwriting Names of people
Classes of persons
Caricatures and cartoons Collections or discussions of caricatures or pictorial humor Names of people
Corporate bodies
Classes of persons
Ethnic groups
Names of wars
Topical headings
Philippines — History — Philippine-American War — Caricatures and cartoons
Works listing objects located in organizations, institutions or particular places
  Fitzwilliam Museum--Catalogs
Comic books, strips, etc.   Names of people
Topical headings
Indians of North America--Commerce--Comic books, strips, etc.
Correspondence Letters from and/or to the person or people; can be subdivided by -Catalogs Names of people
Classes of persons
Ethnic groups
Women comedians — Correspondence
Description - [dates] Add -Views for pictorial works Cities  
Description and travel- [date]
  Places Madagascar — Description and travel
Diaries Collections or discussions of the person's diaries and for individual diaries Names of persons
Classes of people
Hoshida, George, 1907-1985 — Diaries
Early Works to 1800      
Facsimiles   Types of printed materials
Specific documents
Incunabula — Facsimiles.
History--Sources Collections or discussion of contemporary writings such as legal documents, letters, diaries, family papers,etc. assembled at a later time to serve as source material for research Countries
Names of people
Classes of persons
Ethnic groups
Topical headings not inherently historical
Jews — History — Sources
Interviews Works consisting of transcripts of what was said during the course of the interview or conversations with a person on one or more occasions Names of people
Classes of people
Women intellectuals — Interviews
Library Resources Works describing the resources and special collections available Countries
Names of people
Corporate bodies
Classes of persons
Ethnic groups
Topical headings
Health education--Library resources
Manuscripts Manuscripts - Catalogs
Manuscripts - Facsimiles
Manuscripts - Indexes
Manuscripts - Microform catalogs
Literary authors
Literary works that enter under title
Sacred works
Groups of authors
Names of literatures
Topical headings
Maps Individual maps or collections of maps Countries, etc.
Corporate bodies
Topical headings
Notebooks, sketchbooks Collections or discussions of the person's notebooks or sketchbooks Names of people Tsang, Fu Ji, 1958--Notebooks, sketchbooks, etc.
Oral History      
Personal narratives Personal reminiscences or accounts by participants Names of events
Names of wars
Chile — History — Coup d'état, 1973 — Personal narratives — History and criticism
Pictorial Works   Names of people
Named entities
Classes of persons
Ethnic groups
Individual wars
Topical headings
Underground Press Publications--Pictoral Works
Portraits Collections or discussion of portraits of persons living after 1400; use -Art for those living before Names of people Women — Europe — Portraits — History
Posters Collections or discussion of posters depicting the person, group, etc. Names of people
Corporate bodies
Classes of persons
Ethnic groups
Individual wars
Topical headings
Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Alaska, 1989 — Environmental aspects — Posters
Speeches, addresses, etc.
Statues Works discussing or containing reproductions of statues of the person Names of people Statues — Africa, North — History — To 1500