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Primary Sources Research Project
- Class: Unspecified
- This template is published for use.
Step 1: Understand what primary sources are and what sources you can use to complete your assignment.Percent time spent on this step: 10%
InstructionsTIP: How does your instructor/department define primary sources? Different disciplines may define primary sources in different ways.You need to know what your instructor considers to be a primary source. Ask if you are not sure.
What are primary sources?
Primary sources document the past from the first hand perspective of the individuals and organizations that experienced it as they carried out their daily lives or work. For example:
- An electronics company keeps business records documenting its operations, new inventions and finances.
- An early botanist publishes a book that describes the exotic plants and animals discovered while traveling.
- Staff of a newspaper write an articles, take photos, and produce web content about an election.
- A soldier is in a battle and sends a letter or email about it a few weeks later.
NOTE: Sometimes more recent books, journals and newspapers can be primary sources, too. It depends on the topic and time period you are researching. Ask your instructor if you are unsure.
Step 2: Read and understand your assignment. Select a topic of interest.Percent time spent on this step: 10%
InstructionsStart early. Using primary sources is different from other types of library or online research and takes more time. The amount of research time needed varies depending on the scope of the project. You won't be able to do all your research the night before your project is due!
- Read the assignment carefully. Primary source research can take a lot of time, plan accordingly.
- Secondary sources (e.g. books, articles) synthesize and interpret information for you. When you do research with primary sources, it is your chance to synthesize and interpret the material. This takes time and thought.
- Primary sources in archives and special collections libraries may not be arranged in an easy-to-use order. You must allow time to find and assemble information from many different sources.
- Some primary sources are handwritten, fragile, faded, or written in another language and may take more time to read.
- Collections that have primary sources often have limited hours and materials cannot be checked out. Check with individual archives and special collections about hours and access to materials.
Step 3: Do background research on your topic.Percent time spent on this step: 10%
InstructionsBackground research will help you to find sources faster and judge the relevance and meaning of the material you are using. It will also give you context for making sense of primary sources and provide insight on your topic.
- Search on your topic in secondary sources, for example: books, journals, reference sources (such as an encyclopedia) and trusted web sites.
- Citations, bibliographies and footnotes are good places to find information on primary sources.
- Write down key terms and ideas for the time period and topic you are researching. Write down names, authors, places, organizations, and concepts that you can use in further searching.
Step 4: Start searching for primary sources. Create a list of materials to use for your research.Percent time spent on this step: 20%
- Use the terms, names, people, places and concepts from your background research. Try a variety of different terms. Consider terms that were used in the time period you are researching.
- Explore individual Archives and Special Collection sites. They may contain lists of collections, links to digital content, online exhibits and other resources. Also many of the U of M libraries have additional primary sources.
- Explore Primary Sources in Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences and Professional Programs
- Search online guides, also known as finding aids, in Archives and Special Collections.
- Search UMedia Archive for digital images and audio/visual recordings from collections at the U of M.
- Search MNCAT, the library catalog
- Be open to using more than one collection to discover information. You may have to use more than one collection to piece together information and research a topic.
- Citation mangers help to create and organize a list of sources.
Have Questions? Can’t Find Anything?
- Contact individual archives and special collections offices or librarian. Staff members can:
- suggest sources or explain if sources on your topic may be difficult to locate.
- help you to revise your research question/topic to best utilize available sources.
- If you do not know which Archives and Special Collections office to contact, find one that relates to your topic on the home page.
- Discuss your research with your instructor. He or she may be able to help you revise your topic, if needed.
Step 5: Request and access primary materials for your research. Request copies or scans of materials. Collect citation information.Percent time spent on this step: 20%
InstructionsTIP: Check with the location you are visiting about hours and special procedures for using the materials.Make an appointment in advance or talk with staff about requesting materials. Some collections are stored off-site and need 2 days to retrieve.
Strategies on using primary materials
- Consider where you should start your research based on the collection guide (finding aid), library catalog, your list of resources, and staff recommendations. These will help you decide which boxes or items to use first. Skimming the materials first and then going back for an in-depth review can be a useful research strategy.
- With your topic or research question in mind, be open-minded and let the sources "speak" to you. If you try to find evidence to prove a specific point, you may draw conclusions that are not supported by the sources, waste your time looking for something very specific that is not in the collection, or miss more important or interesting information.
- Expect to have to piece together evidence from various sources and not find a single document that tells “the whole story."
- Look for information on key people, dates, groups, organization and events related to your topic.
- Look for prominent or recurring issues, subjects and ideas. See if patterns emerge.
- Ask yourself what is missing. Write down questions or missing information you want to research.
- Pay attention to the tone of the materials. Do the sources have a perspective or reveal their creator’s attitude regarding your topic? Are they objective, biased or even fictional or exaggerated?
- Take careful notes.
- This Document Analysis Worksheet helps you evaluate and get information from the sources
- Check out the Medium as Message exhibit showing examples of types of primary sources. Answer the questions to practice evaluating primary sources.
- University of Manitoba's primary sources research tutorial contains good advice on how to analyze primary sources and integrate them into your research.
Talk with staff about requesting photocopies or scans
- Request copies and scans early! It can take days to a few weeks for staff to complete your copy or scan order.
- Important: If you want to use a digital camera, check with staff before you take pictures.
- Note: Not all documents can be photographed, scanned or copied. Possible restrictions include items that are too fragile or situations where copying would violate copyright restrictions, donor agreements, or data privacy.
Many primary sources are unpublished and don’t always have an obvious title, author, or publisher to cite. You must collect and keep key pieces of information to cite the sources correctly:
- Short description of the type of document such as “letter” or “telegram”.
- Document heading or title, if available, such as “Annual report of Acme Corporation.
- Document creator and/or recipient, when available, such as “Jane Doe” or “Acme Corporation.”
- Date, if available.
- Number or title of the folder where you found the document, if there is one.
- Number of the box where you found the document.
- Name of the collection where the document was found.
- Name of the archive or special collections library that holds the collection(s) you are using. Ask a staff member to provide a suggested citation for the collection.
Step 6: Develop an outline for your project. Revise your thesis statement if needed.Percent time spent on this step: 5%
- Be ready to revise, narrow or even change to a related topic based on the sources you have found. Ask yourself whether your initial thesis needs to be revised based on the evidence you found.
- Integrate information and documents you found during your research into your project.
- Create citations for your sources.
Step 7: Conduct additional research to fill in gaps or answer questions as necessary.Percent time spent on this step: 5%
- Look for additional information in the sources you used to answer new questions or fill in gaps.
- Using the names of people and organizations, topics, and other information you collected, search again for more sources that you can use.
- Libraries staff can advise you about whether more information might be available and where to look for it.
- Read more secondary sources, such as books or articles, to help clarify and refine your argument and provide more background or context for understanding your sources.
Step 8: Revise & rewrite. Finalize citationsPercent time spent on this step: 10%
- Check with your instructor if you have questions about required citation style.
- Don’t leave your citations until the last minute! It takes time to write citations for primary sources. They are often unpublished and don’t always have an obvious title, author, or publisher to cite.
- Use the online or in-person writing consultants at the U of MN's Center for Writing
Step 9: Proofread, polish and put project in final formPercent time spent on this step: 10%
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