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Research Help

Primary Sources in the Humanities

Primary sources are original documents, diaries, letters, photographs, scrapbooks and other materials created during or shortly after the events they discuss.

They document individual experiences, opinions and observations of events and allow researchers to understand more about what it was like to live through a historical period. Most materials held in the our archives and special collections are primary sources.

Definitions of Archival Terms

Materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs and preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator.
An individual responsible for appraising, acquiring, arranging, describing, preserving, and providing access to records of enduring value, according to the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control to protect the materials’ authenticity and context.
1. A group of materials with some unifying characteristic.
2. Materials assembled by a person, organization, or repository from a variety of sources; an artificial collection.

From A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology, published by the Society of American Archivists.

Finding Primary Sources

Books & Periodicals

To find books & periodicals in the Maine Womens Writers Collection, The New England Osteopathic Heritage Center, University History Collections or another of our special collection or archives, use the advanced search and limit the location to the collection name. Search for terms such as: archives, correspondence, description and travel, diaries, early works, or personal narratives.

Finding Aids

Basic Elements of a Finding Aid

Title Page
Includes the name of the collection, when it was created, and the repository.
Summary Information
Lists the repository, creator of the collection, collection title, and number, dates, amount of material, languages, and the preferred citation.
Biographical/Historical Note
Describes the person or entity who created the materials, with significant biographical or historical information, if known.
Collection Scope and Content
Describes the kinds of materials, subject areas, and general content of the collection.
Describes how the collection materials are organized.
Administrative Information
Lists any restrictions on access and information about copyright.
Controlled Access Headings
List of subjects, creators or other significant individuals, places, or material types.
General Notes
These vary by collection.
Collection Inventory
Box and folder listing.

Archivists create finding aids to help researchers find archival materials relevant to their topic. Some finding aids detail the items in a collection, but most provide only a general description of what each collection holds.

Digitized Material

Some of our collections have been digitized and can be found online in UNE’s Institutional Repository DUNE: DigitalUNE.

You can find a wide array of digitized material on nearly every subject at repositories across the country. Some reputable sources for historical material include:

Using Archives in Your Research

Use primary sources to understand the past and contextualize historical events, movements and ideas. While reviewing a primay source, ask yourself:

  • What is it?
  • Who created it?
  • When and where was it created?
  • How was it made?
  • What evidence does it contain?
  • Why might this have been created?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • What else do you need to know to understand this?
  • What other materials are like this?
  • What sources might help to contextualize this content?
  • How does this support my research?

Citing Primary Sources

Use the citation style required for your research purpose. 

To cite items from our collections, the general format is:
[Item], [Collection Name], [Collection], University of New England, [Campus Location], Maine.

Example: Letter to Gilbert Tracy (1902), Elizabeth Akers Allen papers, Maine Women Writers Collection, University of New England, Portland, Maine. 

Visiting Archives

If the material you are interested in has not been digitized, you may need to visit the archives. Contact the archivist of the collection you would like to visit so that you can be sure that the material you want to see is available. Most welcome all levels of research questions, and visitors from casual users to post-doctoral scholars.

If you are unable to visit the archives contact the archivist to discuss this possibility of having material digitized.

Questions & Help

If you have questions on this, or another, topic, contact a librarian for help!

For information about UNE’s archival collections see the collection website.