Answered By: Angela Whitehurst
Last Updated: Aug 12, 2014     Views: 228

Conducting research about historical topics requires the use of primary and secondary sources. Primary sources are records that have survived from the past and include such items as diaries, letters, photographs, business records, government and public documents, oral history interviews, and papers of organizations or societies. Secondary sources are restatements of primary sources that seek to analyze, describe, or explain and may also include arguments in support of a certain interpretation of the primary source.  Secondary resources consist of books and journal articles. 

Newspaper articles may either be primary or secondary historical sources depending upon when they were published.  An article published at the time of the event or very shortly thereafter is considered a primary source; one that is published later in time is considered secondary.  For example, a newspaper article about the September 11th terrorist attacks which was published the day following the attacks would be considered a primary source.  One published several months or years later reflecting on the event would be considered a secondary source.

Finding Primary Sources

Library Collections: Many libraries have collections of primary documents. The Manuscripts and Rare Books Collection, part of the Special Collections Division at Joyner Library, has unpublished primary materials dating from the 1730's to the present. The strongest collections are in North Carolina history, military history, naval and maritime history, missionary history, and the history of the tobacco industry. The East Carolina University Digital Collections contains thousands of online images, texts, and audio/video from ECU's diverse collections and beyond. Additionally, the North Carolina Collection at Joyner Library includes published primary sources and microfilm related to North Carolina history.

Internet Resources: There are many collections available worldwide via the Internet for locating primary resources which have been digitized for access and use.  Also, see the guide How do I locate primary sources?  for a list of websites containing digitized resources.

Finding Secondary Sources

Books: Begin with the library catalog. You may choose to search by keyword, author, title, or subject. For a broader selection, search WorldCat, a database of books available from libraries around the world.

Journal Articles: For database searching, go to the Joyner Library homepage and click on “Find Databases” link.  You will be taken to the available databases.  Browse the Arts & Humanities category for the link to the relevant databases for history.

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