Saturday, November 5, 2011

Finding Primary Sources for U.S. History Papers

Where can you go if you need primary sources for a research paper in your history class?  As a reference librarians, sometimes it is challenging to help students looking for primary sources.  Wikipedia defines a primary source like this:
 Primary source is a term used in a number of disciplines to describe source material that is closest to the person, information, period, or idea being studied.
The University of Maryland Libraries also explains the differences between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources in more detail, offering useful examples.  Essentially an item or document created by a single person at the time of the event can also be considered a primary source, so primary sources could be any of the following:
  • Letters between individuals
  • Diaries or personal journals
  • Speeches written and given at an event
  • Newspaper articles written at the time of the event
  • Original studies published in peer-reviewed journals
  • Books reviews of titles that are recently published (Some people may argue that any book review is a primary source as it recounts the recent event of someone's experience or reaction to reading a book, whether it is a new book or not.)
 Milestone Documents of American Leaders: Exploring the Primary Sources of Notable Americans. Ed. Paul Finkelman.  Dallas, TX: Schlager Group, 2009.

This four-volume title contains many primary documents of well-known Americans, beginning with colonial figures like Abigail Adams and George Washington while also including more recent figures like Sandra Day O'Conner and George W. Bush.  Yes, this could be one of the best places for finding primary sources.

The first entry in volume #4 features Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1908-1972), who was a U.S. Congressman in the 1940s through the 1960s.  His entry commences with these life details, plus mention of the three primary sources associated with him:
  • Speech on Civil Rights (1955)
  • "Black Power: A Form of Godly Power" (1967)
  • "Black Power and the Future of Black America" (1971)
Each entry holds to the same structure: overview, explanation and analysis of documents, impact and legacy, key sources, further readings, essential quotes, questions for further study, and, last of all, the primary documents themselves.  The overview about Representative Powell's life provides specific details about his life that are relevant to the documents in question.  In the pages that explain and analyze the documents there appears a timeline of his life, noting significant events mostly related to his political life.  A glossary explains words, contextual references, and may give an entire person's name when a partial one is given in the text.

Each of the entries include a large, full-page photo on the page before the article begins.  Use the subject index at the end of the fourth volume if you need to find where certain persons or ideas are mentioned within the four-volume set.  Placed before the index is a list of documents by category:
  • Correspondence and Diaries
  • Essays, Reports, and Manifestos
  • Interviews
  • Legal
  • Legislative
  • Military
  • Presidential/Executive
  • Speeches/Addresses (looks like the lengthiest section)
Each volume contains a "Contents" section at the beginning for the whole set, listing all the individuals in alphabetical order.

All in all, this appears to be a great resource for anyone looking to find primary sources of American leaders.  Take a look in your library's catalog to see if they have this reference set.  If your library does have this title, they may also have the E-book version that you could access online.  Look for a link to access the E-book.

Following is one of the "Essential Quotes" from Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.:
Tremendous changes are taking place in our country eradicating the concept of second-class citizenship.  Yet the United States Congress has done absolutely nothing in this sphere.  We are behind the times.  We are a legislative anachronism.  In an age of atomic energy, our dynamic is no more powerful than a watermill.  (Speech on Civil Rights, 1955, p.1740)

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