Researching a Topic in Four Easy Steps:
Step 3a: Consider using alternate types of material: Primary Sources
- What is a primary source?
- The formats of primary sources
- How Yale describes its collections to researchers
- Bibliographic tools for research in history
- WHAT IS A PRIMARY SOURCE?
- A primary source is firsthand testimony or direct evidence concerning a
topic under investigation. The nature and value of a source cannot be determined
without reference to the topic and questions it is meant to answer. The same
document, or other piece of evidence, may be a primary source in one investigation
and secondary in another. The search for primary sources does not, therefore,
automatically include or exclude any category of records or documents.
definitions and examples
- THE FORMATS OF PRIMARY SOURCES
- The categories that follow are neither rigorously exclusive nor hierarchical.
A single primary source may overlap one or more of these categories; for instance,
a map may be an item in an archival collection, or a manuscript may have been
printed and published at some point as a book. Nonetheless, these categories
have proven to be practical concepts for organizing and describing the kinds
of sources that document history, and secondary sources, such as bibliographies,
often focus on materials in one of these formats or categories.
- Printed or published texts
- Books and monographs
- A book is technically "a collection of leaves of paper, parchment,
or other material, in some way affixed to one another, whether printed, written,
or blank..." (ALA glossary of library and information science (Chicago:
American Library Association, 1983), p.27). A monograph is "a systematic
and complete treatise on a particular subject" (ALA glossary, p.48),
in one or many volumes, complete at the time of publication or published with
the intention of being completed at some future date.
Books and monographs
as primary sources
- Serials (newspapers, periodicals, magazines,
- A serial is a publication that begins at a point in time, and continues
publication, usually at regular, established intervals, with the intention
of continuing publication indefinitely. A periodical is a serial that's
published three or more times a year. Magazines and newspapers are general terms for types of periodicals, both describing publications of
interest to general readers. Newspapers are often published more frequently
than magazines and usually in a tabloid format. Scholarly journals are publications that report the research of scholars and are often quite
Serials as primary sources
- Government documents
- "Important reference material may be found in publications issued by national,
state, and municipal governments and by international governmental organizations.
Government publications (often called government documents) chronicle the
workings of governmental units, both currently and historically; provide information
on many other subjects as well, including economics, history, education, health,
labor, agriculture, and the arts; and contain large collections of national
statistics." ( Guide to Reference Books / Eleventh edition (Chicago:
American Library Association, 1996), p.244)
as primary sources
- Manuscripts and Archives
- Unique documents, either hand-written or typed, varying in length from
a single note or letter to a full-length book, and small groups of the same.
Archival documents may be either personal papers or institutional archives.
- During this century the definition of manuscript, which originally referred
to handwritten items, has evolved; it refers now to "... a body of records
or personal papers or an artificial collection with historical value held
by an institution or individual other than the creator." (Trudy Huskamp Peterson,
"Using the finding aids to archive and manuscript collections," IN Teaching bibliographic skill in history: a sourcebook for historians and
librarians , ed. Charles A. D'Aniello (New York: Greenwood Press, 1993),
- "In archives, [the term] manuscripts is used to distinguish nonarchival
from archival material; it includes groups of personal papers and artificial
collections." ( ALA glossary of library and information science (Chicago:
American Library Association, 1983), p.139.
See Step 3b:
Consider using alternate types of material: Manuscript and Archival Materials
- "A map is a representation on a flat surface (usually of paper) of the
features of a part of the earth's surface or of the skies, drawn at a specific
scale" (Small, John. A modern dictionary of geography (London: Edwin
Arnold, 1989), p.140)
tools for map research
- Dissertations are book-length studies based on original research and written
in partial fulfillment of requirements for the doctoral degree.
- Visual materials
- Visual materials are generally comprised of the following types of images: original art (single paintings, drawings, watercolors, sculpture,
architectural drawings and plans, monoprints); films ; prints (works reproduced in multiple copies, including graphic art, etchings,
engravings, lithographs, woodcuts, mezzotints, posters, trade cards, artists'
prints, and computer-generated graphics; and photographs (images
taken with a camera and reproducible from a photographic negative, and also
Visual materials as primary sources
- Music, according to the Oxford English dictionary , is "... that
one of the fine arts which is concerned with the combination of sounds with
a view to beauty of form and the expression of emotion". It consists of "...
sounds in melodic or harmonic combination, whether produced by voice or instruments",
particularly as devised by a composer.
Music as a primary
- Machine readable data files
- Machine-readable data files are collections of numeric data stored in a
form that can only be read by a computer.
Data files as primary sources
Tools for identifying machine-readable datafiles
- Realia or artifacts
- Realia can best be described as "... objects which may be used
as teaching aids but were not made for the purpose." ( Oxford English dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), v.13, p.274). Realia include such items
as objects, specimens, samples, relics, artifacts, souvenirs, and even models
and dioramas. Artifacts are "... anything made by human art and workmanship."
( Oxford English dictionary , v.1, p.660)
Realia as primary
- HOW YALE DESCRIBES ITS COLLECTIONS TO RESEARCHERS
- The union catalogs
- Orbis (the OPAC)
- Orbis is Yale's online information service, providing access through the
OPAC (online public access catalog) to records of the following types:
- --Material cataloged since 1977 (note that this is cataloged since
1977; the publication or creation date of the material itself may be much
earlier than 1977)
- --Brief records (which do not include subject headings) for material which
has circulated from many of the libraries since 1981; these records number
- --Material or order or in process (meaning that the Library
has received the material but has not yet fully cataloged it)
- --The only records for materials acquired since the late 1980s
- --Records for currently-received journals but not for many older titles
which have ceased publication or to which the Library has stopped subscribing;
these are still represented only in the Sterling card catalog and the catalogs
of the school and department libraries
- Finding primary sources in Orbis
- Other catalogs
- While the Sterling Library card catalog and Orbis OPAC contain records for
millions of items in Yale's libraries, they do NOT describe all of the libraries'
collections. A variety of other catalogs and finding aids are often the only
sources of information about valuable material in the library
- The Government Documents and Information Center
- Materials collected in the Government Documents & Information Center include
U.S. Federal government, Canadian Federal government, United Nations, Food
and Agriculture Organization and European Union publications and information.
Most of this material is not represented by records in ORBIS but is controlled
by indexes and other finding aids accessible in the Government Documents &
Information Center or through the Internet.
More about the
Government Documents Center
European documents and statistical publications at Yale
- The Law Library
- The Law Library has added full catalog records for its monographs and statement
records for its serial titles to the Sterling card catalog and to the Orbis
OPAC. It has NOT, however, sent holdings records for its serials, and so it's
necessary to consult the Law Library's card catalog and its own online catalog
(called Morris) for full information about which serial volumes it holds.
Information about MORRIS
Search MORRIS via the WEB
- The Medical Historical Library
- The Medical Historical Library contains a large and unique collection of
rare medical books, medical journals to 1920, pamphlets, prints, and photographs,
as well as current works on the history of medicine.
More about the Medical
- Manuscript and Archival Collections
- The Orbis OPAC contains records for all of the manuscript and archival
collections at the Divinity Library, for most of the collections held by Sterling
Library's Department of Manuscripts and Archives, and for many of the archival
and manuscript collections held by the Beinecke Library, the Music Library,
and the library at the Yale Center for British Art, but many other manuscripts
and archival collections are described ONLY in other catalogs.
- A small number of collections in Manuscripts and Archives (including
some very large collections) are described only in RLIN (the Research Library
Group's Information Network), available for searching through a service called Eureka.
More about the Department
of Manuscripts and Archives
- Most of the Beinecke Library's literary collections and its European
historical collections are described in a card catalog in Beinecke Library.
The Beinecke's pre-1600 manuscripts are described in Catalogue of medieval
and Renaissance manuscripts in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library,
Yale University by Barbara A. Shailor and in a local text database available
in the Beinecke.
More about the
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
- Individual manuscripts held by the Music Library are described in
a card catalog at the library, and the library's unprocessed collections are
described in a pamphlet, "Archival papers in the Music Library of Yale University:
a checklist," which is available at the library.
More about the Music
- A card catalog at the library of the Yale Center for British Art contains information not available in Sterling or through Orbis.
More about the library at the Yale Center
for British Art
- The manuscript collections of the Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington
are described only in a card catalog at the Library.
More about the Lewis
- The Map Collection
- Most of the Yale Library's cartographic resources are described only in
a card catalog located in the Map Collection in Rooms 707-710 of Sterling.
Consult with the staff of the Map Collection to make the best use of the catalog,
which is available when the Collection is open.
More about the Map
- Microform Collections
- Although the Orbis OPAC contains records for thousands of microform titles,
the library owns thousands of more titles in microform, for which the only
bibliographic records are stored in the Microtext Reading Room in the basement
of Sterling Library. In addition to a card catalog, the reference shelves
in the Microtext Room contain a variety of "reel" guides which index the hundreds
of individual titles that comprise some of the most extensive microform collections
acquired by the library.
- The Yale Library holds many more newspapers than are described in Orbis
and the card catalog. Be certain to consult Newspaper Holdings of the
Yale University Library , a geographically arranged list of all newspapers
for which Yale maintains a backfile, either in paper or in microform. The
list, which was prepared by the staff of the Newspaper Microtext Room in Sterling
in July, 1992, is available at the Reference Desk in Sterling and at the service
desk in the Microform Room in the basement of Sterling.
- Finding aids for archival collections
- The card-form and machine-readable catalog records for archival collections
provide a general description of the material. These broad, collection-level
records are frequently supplemented by detailed "finding aids" which provide
a more extensive summary of a collection's contents and describe the contents
of each box and folder within the archive. Finding aids are sometimes called
registers or inventories; whatever their name, they include many subject terms
and personal names not indexed in a collection-level record and are essential
tools to consult before looking at the original documents.
- Look for the phrase "Unpublished finding aid in repository" within the collection-level
record for an archive to see whether a finding aid exists. In the past, most
finding aids were available only in paper form at the repository that created
them. The reference shelves in Manuscripts and Archives and in Beinecke Library
contain hundreds of examples. In recent years, many of the paper-form finding
aids have been converted to machine-readable form and are now available over
the WEB. If you do not find a particular finding aid in machine-readable form,
consult with the reference staff at Yale's various libraries to find out in
what form you may consult it.
Finding Aids Online Tutorial
Library Finding Aid database
- Librarians, curators, and subject specialists throughout the Yale University
Library system are here to help you with your research and are specialists
in identifying and using information sources. Contact them by visiting the
Reference Desk in the appropriate library, by sending them e-mail, or by telephoning.
- List of library
- BIBLIOGRAPHIC TOOLS FOR RESEARCH IN HISTORY
- This section is designed to provide a selected list of basic printed and
electronic resources to help in the identification of primary sources in the
several specific national histories included below. These sources include:
- A bibliography is "A list of works..., usually with some relationship between
them, e.g. by a given author, on a given subject, or published in a given
place, and differing from a catalog in that its contents are not restricted
to the holdings of a single collection, library, or group of libraries." ( The ALA glossary of library and information science (Chicago: American
Library Association, 1983), p.22). There are several types of bibliographies:
- An annotated bibliography has entries which include " ...
note[s] ... intended to describe, explain, or evaluate the publication referred
to." ( ALA glossary , p.8)
- EXAMPLE: Historical abstracts. v.1- 1955- . [Santa Barbara,
Calif., Clio Press]
- A current bibliography records currently or recently published
documents, with the intent of reporting the recent literature as it appears.
- EXAMPLE: America: history and life. v.0- 1972- . [Santa
Barbara, Calif., Clio Press]
- A national bibliography is "A bibliography of documents
published in a particular country and, ... documents ... written in the language
of the country." ( ALA glossary , p.151).
- EXAMPLE: British national bibliography. v.1- 1950- . London
: Council of the British National Bibliography.
- A period bibliography lists works about a given time period.
- EXAMPLE: Bibliotheque des Fontaines. Catalogue du fonds revolutionnaire / Bibliotheque des Fontaines. Chantilly : La Bibliotheque, 1989. 2 v.
- A retrospective bibliography "... lists documents or parts
of documents, such as articles, published in previous years, as distinct from
a current bibliography ... . Retrospective bibliographies are frequently divided
into two types ... [one of which is] research-oriented, [and] are intended
as jumping-off points for those doing research in the topic covered ... ."
( ALA glossary , p.194)
- EXAMPLE: Diaz Sanchez, Pilar. Las mujeres en la historia de
Espasna, siglos XVIII-XX : bibliografia comentada / Pilar Diaz Sanchez,
Pilar Dominguez Prats. Madrid : Ministerio de Cultura, Instituto de la Mujer,
- A serial bibliography appears at fixed intervals of time,
e.g. weekly, monthly, quarterly, annually, and has as its mission the reporting
of titles, often both book titles and article titles (as well as dissertations,
book reviews, pamphlets, and other types of material) as they appear.
- EXAMPLE: Historical abstracts . v.1- 1955- . [Santa Barbara,
Calif., etc. American Bibliographical Center-Clio Press]
- A subject bibliography lists works about a given subject.
- EXAMPLE: Bass, Dorothy C. Women in American religious history
: an annotated bibliography and guide to sources / Dorothy C. Bass, Sandra
Hughes Boyd. Boston, Mass. : G.K. Hall, c1986.
- Guides to the literature
Narrative introductions to doing research in a given subject area, with suggestions
for research approaches and introductions to the research literature and sources
of the field.
- EXAMPLE: The American Historical Association's guide to historical
literature / general editor, Mary Beth Norton ; associate editor, Pamela
Gerardi. 3rd ed. New York : Oxford University Press, 1995. 2 v.
Indexes generally provide access to the contents of individual periodicals
or newspapers, or to the contents of multiple periodicals and newspapers whose
subject focus is similar. They differ from bibliographies in that fact that
they contain citations to only one type of publication -- articles, book reviews,
and editorials in periodicals -- rather than to a range of materials, e.g.
books, articles, and maps.
- EXAMPLE: The New York times index . v.1- 1851- . New York,
New York Times Co.
- EXAMPLE: Air University Library index to military periodicals . v.1- 1963- . Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. : Air University Library.
- Library catalogs
Many research libraries, or specialized collections within those libraries,
have produced multi-volume printed book catalogs to the contents of these
collections through a specific date, e.g. all works cataloged before 1970.
Because of the subject focus and inclusiveness of many of these collections,
these catalogs of specific collections can used as bibliographies on the subject
focus of the collection.
- EXAMPLE American Antiquarian Society. Catalogue of the manuscript
collections of the American Antiquarian Society. Boston : G. K. Hall,
1979. 4 v.
- EXAMPLE Great Britain. Colonial Office. Library. Catalogue of
the Colonial Office Library, London. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1964. 15v. plus
- SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHIC TOOLS FOR RESEARCH BY COUNTRY
- American history
- Before 1900
- After 1900
- United States government documents
- European history
- Great Britain
- European government publications and official statistics
- Tools for identifying machine-readable datafiles
This material is based on the Web site created to support a series of colloquia
in historical research offered by the Yale University Library. The initial site
was prepared in August 1996 by Suzanne Lorimer, Susanne Roberts, Margaret Powell,
George Miles, Fred Musto, Emily Horning, Cesar Rodriguez, Nancy Godleski, Richard
Williams, Elizabeth Pauk, and Martha Brogan.
Back to Researching
a Topic in Four Easy Steps
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