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History 167C Germany 1914 to Present: Primary Source Collections

Identifying Primary Sources

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. Examples include: photographs, interviews, diaries, letters, and governement records.

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.

How can you determine whether an item is a primary source?

The following characteristics can help you differentiate primary sources from those that are not.

  • When was the object or document created? Was it created at the same time as the event took place?
  • What technology was available at the time of the event? A video of something that took place before the invention of the motion picture cannot be a primary source. 
  • Who's telling the story? Were they present at the event? How does the author know what he/she knows?
  • Why was the source created? Is it presenting the facts of an event, or analyzing what occurred?


  • Why is the information being provided or the article written?
  • Are there references to other writings on this topic?


  • Is the date of publication evident?
  • Does the date of publication close to the event described?

Locating Primary Sources using the catalog

There are many access points to the vast collections of primary sources available to you.

Certain words and phrases will find primary sources in library catalogs.  You can use these in OskiCat or Melvyl:

advanced keyword search -correspondence
-personal narratives
-early works to 1800
-pictorial works
-caricatures and cartoons
-songs and music

For specific search strategies, see the Library's guide to Finding Historical Primary Sources.

Your searches will be more successful if, in your preliminary research, you identify specific:

  • names of relevant individuals and organizations
  • dates of events
  • places
  • what terminology was used at the time by participants and observers? (ex:  negro or colored instead of african american)

Selected Primary Sources

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