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English : Primary Sources

Subjects: English
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See Research Guide on Digitized Primary Sources for Literary History & Research

Dr. Anna Clark of the English Department created a great guide on Digitized Primary Sources. Please visit it.

Library of Congress on Using Primary Sources

Primary sources are defined as "actual records that have survived from the past, such as letters, photographs, articles of clothing." In contrast, secondary sources are accounts of the past created by people writing about events sometime after they happened.

For example, your history textbook is a secondary source. Someone wrote most of your textbook long after historical events took place. Your textbook may also include some primary sources, such as direct quotes from people living in the past or excerpts from historical documents.

People living in the past left many clues about their lives. These clues include both primary and secondary sources in the form of books, personal papers, government documents, letters, oral accounts, diaries, maps, photographs, reports, novels and short stories, artifacts, coins, stamps and many other things. Historians call all of these clues together the historical record.

Library of Congress

Digital Collections

Digital Public Library of America or DPLA

The Digital Public Library of America brings together the riches of America’s libraries, archives, and museums, and makes them freely available to the world. It strives to contain the full breadth of human expression, from the written word, to works of art and culture, to records of America’s heritage, to the efforts and data of science. 

DPLA: Primary Source Sets 

Collection of primary source sets designed to facilitate student engagement in a variety of historical and literary topics. One of the most recently added Primary Source Sets is a variety of materials related to Ralph Waldo Ellison's Invisible Man. This impressive collection includes dozens of primary source sets, including Pop Art in the US; Stonewall and its Impact on the Gay Liberation Movement; and Latin American Revolutionaries, to name just a few.

Digital Culture of Metropolitan New York (DCMNY)

A New Interface for METRO's Digital Collections

by Davis Erin Anderson, Community Engagement Manager, METRO

We’re excited to unveil the new online home for METRO-hosted digital collections! Digital Culture of Metropolitan New York (DCMNY), our new infrastructure for digital content, features nearly 25,000 digitized photographs, postcards, letters, maps, art catalogs, and more.

“We’re thrilled to be able to showcase these incredibly rich cultural artifacts from institutions in the metropolitan New York area,” says Anne Karle-Zenith, METRO’s Digital Services Manager. “These collections feature fascinating aspects of life in New York in years past. We can’t wait to see how the new site will help facilitate discovery and new uses of these materials.”

Difference between Primary & Secondary Sources

Library of Congress

Library of Congress Digital Collections & Services
Access to print, pictorial and audio-visual collections and other digital services

Finding Primary Sources

Looking for Library of Congress primary sources? Try these quick starting points:

American Memory: Historical Collections for the National Digital Library

Primary Source Sets – Each set collects primary sources on a specific topic, all as easy-to-use PDFs, with historical background information and teaching ideas.

Primary Sources by State - Selected primary sources for each of the fifty states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. territories.

Themed Resources – The best Library of Congress resources on the most frequently taught themes.

Browse by Topic - Easy browsing for primary sources across all the digital collections of the Library of Congress.

Web Guides - In-depth guides to resources on a wide variety of topics.

The Printed Ephemera collection at the Library of Congress is a rich repository of Americana. In total, the collection comprises 28,000 primary-source items dating from the seventeenth century to the present and encompasses key events and eras in American history. An American Time Capsule, the online presentation of the Printed Ephemera collection, comprises 17,000 of the 28,000 physical items. More are scheduled to be digitized in the future. While the broadside format represents the bulk of the collection, there are a significant number of leaflets and some pamphlets. Rich in variety, the collection includes proclamations, advertisements, blank forms, programs, election tickets, catalogs, clippings, timetables, and menus. They capture the everyday activities of ordinary people who participated in the events of nation-building and experienced the growth of the nation from the American Revolution through the Industrial Revolution up to present da

The following reputable sites link to thousands of primary sources.

Excellent American Libraries Association Resource!

Using Primary Sources on the Web 

We now have greater access to primary source materials for historical research than ever before. The traditional use of sources available in print and microfilm continues to be the foundation for research, but in some cases documents, letters, maps, photographs of ancient artifacts and other primary material are available online in different formats from free websites or subscription services on the internet.  This brief guide is designed to provide students and researchers with information to help them evaluate the internet sources and the quality of primary materials that can be found online.

American Library Association Reference & User Services Association (RUSA)