Skip to main content

Primary Sources: Archives and Manuscript Collections

This guide is intended to introduce primary sources: what they are and where you can find them at Gelman, online, and elsewhere.

What are primary sources?

Primary sources are materials in a variety of formats, created at the time under study, that serve as original evidence documenting a time period, event, people, ideas, or work. A unique combination of knowledge, skills, and abilities are necessary to be able to find, interpret, evaluate, and ethically use primary sources within a specific disciplinary context, in order to create new knowledge.

Some types of primary sources are:

  • Original documents: Letters, diaries, journals, ledgers, news film footage, pamphlets, manuscripts, newsletters, and photographs.
  • Creative works: Poems, books, music, art, and films.
  • Artifacts and relics: Tools, pottery, jewelry, clothing, and buildings.

Primary sources are found in libraries, archives, special collections, online, databases, historical societies, museums, and many other places!

The Archival Lexicon: Common Terms Used in Archives

Finding aid:  A finding aid describes and details the organization and contents of a collection. Finding aids can help you efficiently identify relevant collections to your research, and to discover specific boxes or folders of interest within those collections.

Provenance: An archival principle that refers to the individual, family, or organization that created or received the items in a collection.  The principle dictates that records of different origins (provenance) be kept separate to preserve their context.

Repository: A place where materials can be stored and maintained.  Examples of repositories include an archives, a library, and a records center.

Record group: A body of organizationally-related records created on the basis of provenance by an archives for control purposes.  A record group constitutes the archives of an autonomous record-keeping corporate body.

Metadata: A characterization or description documenting the identification, management, nature, use, or location of information resources.


Examples of Primary Sources

Primary sources can appear in many different formats.  For example, if you are looking for soldiers' accounts of the Vietnam war, you may find:

  • The published memoir Vietnam Diary by Vietnam veteran Richard Tregaskis.
  • Oral history transcripts and audio files of interviews with veterans online in the Vietnam Center and Archive, created by Texas Tech University.
  • The Kenneth John Citelli diary, in which he wrote daily as a soldier in the Vietnam War, and which is held at the Cornell University Library.

Each of these--a published memoir, an oral history found in an online collection, and the actual diary kept by the soldier--is a primary source.

GW Libraries • 2130 H Street NW • Washington DC