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Primary Source Research in UK Special Collections: Getting Started

This guide will help persons unfamiliar with the research process gain an understanding of the resources available and their context.

How To Do Research Using Primary Sources!


So . . . your professor has just given you a research paper assignment that requires you to use primary sources and you're thinking, OMG, what do I do now? If dropping the class is not an option Smiley well, here's what you do - stay calm and relax because, honest, I'm here to help!

Conducting research using primary sources for the first time can be an intimidating and overwhelming experience if you're not familiar with the process, terminology and resources. This guide is designed to outline the research process in a way that will make conducting primary source research in the UK Special Collections Library as well as other places as easy and intuitive as possible. Reading through this guide completely before you begin your project is recommended.

The boxes below will help you understand what exactly a primary source is, and will provide you with definitions of common terms associated with primary source research that you will likely run into as you work on your assignment. Once you have committed these terms to memory (yeah, right! Or you can just refer back to them as needed Smiley ), you've just completed Step #1 of the research process and can move on to Step #2, "Refining Your Research Topic." At the beginning of Step #2 and Step #3 there will be a general introductory video that helps explain how to come up with a good research topic for your paper and how to locate relevant sources (you do want a good grade, don't you?) followed by step by step instructions on how to conduct primary and secondary source research specifically in UK's Special Collections. I told you this was going to be easy, didn't I? Trust me. Now, c'mon, follow me to Step #2!

Examples of Primary Sources.

Primary sources are the raw materials of history.  They are the original documents or creative works generated in the time period under study. Often, but not always, primary sources contain or demonstrate the perspective of its creator as in, for example, a diary or letter. However, government documents and reports can be primary sources but fail to express an individual’s perspective. For example, the Kentucky Department of Mines and Minerals issues an annual report which contains rich data for someone researching coal production in a particular year, but it does not offer a personal perspective. Sometimes primary sources can be found on the Internet, often in the form of digitized historical documents and government records, such as the U.S. Census.

Other examples of primary sources:

  • Artifacts (clothing, furniture, tools, buildings, paintings, artwork)
  • Experiments
  • First-person accounts (including newspaper accounts)
  • Government publications (statistics, court reports)
  • Historical documents including broadsides, last wills and testaments, posters, and maps
  • Lab reports
  • Draft copies of literary works
  • Journals
  • Diaries
  • Ledgers
  • Correspondence (i.e., written or electronic letters, email)
  • Photographs
  • Observations/Fieldnotes
  • Official government or corporate/business records or papers
  • Audio recordings (e.g., radio programs, speeches, oral histories, music)
  • Film/Video/Digital Visual Recordings

Research Guide Glossary.

Society of American Archivists Definitions

  • Accession # -

    n. ~ A number or code assigned to uniquely identify a group of records or materials acquired by a repository and used to link the materials to associated records.

  • Archives -

    (also archive), 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, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control; permanent records. – 2. The division within an organization responsible for maintaining the organization's records of enduring value. – 3. An organization that collects the records of individuals, families, or other organizations; a collecting archives. – 4. The professional discipline of administering such collections and organizations. – 5. The building (or portion thereof) housing archival collections. – 6. A published collection of scholarly papers, especially as a periodical.

  • Broadside -

            n. ~ A single sheet with information printed on one side that is intended to be posted, publicly distributed, or sold.

  • 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.

    collections, pl. ~ 3. The holdings of a repository.

  • Finding Aid -

    n. ~ 1. A tool that facilitates discovery of information within a collection of records. – 2. A description of records that gives the repository physical and intellectual control over the materials and that assists users to gain access to and understand the materials.

  • Inventory -

   n. ~ 1. A list of things. – 2. Description · A finding aid that includes, at a minimum, a list of the series in a collection.

  • Ledger -

    n. ~ A document containing a record of debits, credits, and other financial transactions, typically organized into separate accounts.

  • Manuscript Collection -

    n. ~ A collection of personal or family papers.

  • Non-Circulating -

         adj. - can not be checked out.

  • Oral History -

    n. ~ 1. An interview that records an individual's personal recollections of the past and historical events. – 2. The audio or video recordings, transcripts, and other materials that capture and are associated with such an interview.

  • Papers -

    n. ~ 1. A collection. – 2. A collection of personal or family documents; personal papers. – 3. Government · Records indicating an individual's identity or status.

  • Series

   n. ~ 1. A group of similar records that are arranged according to a filing system and that are related as the result of being created, received,  or used in the same activity; a file group; a record series.