Primary Sources for the Humanities
What are Primary Sources?
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.
Some Basic Terms Defined
Archive(s): n. ~ 1. 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.
Archivist: n. ~ 1. 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.
Collection: n. ~ 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 held by 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.
Some Recommended Subjects:
To assist in finding archival material including diaries, letters, biographical material, photographs, artifacts, and more use the collection’s finding aid.
Finding aids are created during the sorting and description of archival materials. These documents are created by archivists to help enable researchers to find items relevant to their topic. Some finding aids detail contents on the item level, but most provide only a general description of what each collection holds. Finding aids are imperfect and evolving and reflect the knowledge and expertise of the archivist in addition to their biases/blind spots. We do our best to provide accurate, thoughtful descriptions.
Basic Elements of a Finding Aid
Includes the name of the collection, when it was created, and the repository.
Lists the repository, creator of the collection, collection title, and number, dates, amount of material, languages, and the preferred citation.
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.
Lists any restrictions on access and information about copyright.
Controlled Access Headings
List of subjects, creators or other significant individuals, places, or material types.
These vary by collection.
Box and folder listing.
Using Archives in Your Research
Researchers use primary sources to understand the past and craft narratives to contextualize historical events, movements and ideas. If you are new to primary source research, it can be helpful to look at a primary source while asking questions about its nature.
- What is it?
- Who created it?
- When and where was it created?
- How was it made?
- What evidence is contained in the object?
- Why might this have been created?
- Who was the intended audience?
- What else do you need to know to understand it?
- What other materials are like this?
- What sources might help to contextualize this object?
- How does this object support my research?
Citing Primary Source Material
To cite items from our collections, the general format is:
[Item], [Collection Name], [Collection], University of New England, [Campus Location], Maine.
Letter to Gilbert Tracy (1902), Elizabeth Akers Allen papers, Maine Women Writers Collection, University of New England, Portland, Maine.
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:
- Library of Congress
- Smithsonian Libraries
- Digital Public Library of America
- New York Public Library
- Maine Memory Network
Visiting 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. We welcome all levels of research questions, and visitors from casual users to post-doctoral scholars. We strive to create a welcoming environment for all people, but we do have a few guidelines for users of the archives to help protect our collections. See the collection website for more details.
If you are unable to visit the archives contact the archivist to discuss this possibility of having material digitized.