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Primary Sources -- History and Humanities

Complete guide to using primary sources in historical research

Introduction to Unpublished Primary Sources

Manuscripts, letters, diaries and other personal records that have not been published will only be available through an archive or special collection library.  It will be difficult to include these materials in a one-semester project unless they are local.  If you need to travel for a capstone or thesis project be sure to apply for grant funding.

Locating Special Collections and Archives

  • Consult a general directory such as Directory of Special Libraries and Information Centers (Ref Z731 .D56)  or Directory of Archival and Historical Document Collections Available for Public Use in the North Country (Ref CD3409.N75 N864; copies in Circulating Collection, Ready Reference and Special Collections).
  • Search in WorldCat, limiting the search for your subject to archival material.
  • Consult bibliographies in secondary sources, or directories covering specific subjects.
  • Contact historical societies and libraries in a geographic area that is related to your interest.
  • Visit Repositories of Primary Sources.  Or use an internet  search engine, combining ‘archive’ or ‘special collection’ with terms related to your topic.

Penfield Library Special Collections

Using Special Collections and Archives

  • Call or write ahead.  Many collections have limited staff and hours, and are not going to be open just whenever you show up, even during regular business hours.  Also, many collections will have restrictions on who can use particular materials.
  • Tell the staff ahead of time, as well as you possibly can, exactly what materials you want to use, and what you want to use them for.  It also helps to tell them what you have done and found so far, so they don’t set things up for you to just re-do what you have already done.
  • You will not be allowed to retrieve from or browse the shelves, so once again, call ahead so your materials will be ready for you.
  • Be prepared to write with only pencils when working from original documents.  Also keep your hands washed, and be prepared to wear light cotton gloves when handling delicate materials.  You may be asked to check your coat, umbrella, and briefcase at the door, and only allowed pencils and notebooks in the reading room.  No food or drink should be open or consumed anywhere around the materials.
  • Special lighting and heat/humidity standards are observed to avoid deterioration of materials.  The temperature is likely to be kept on the cool side of comfortable room temperature, and the humidity higher than in an average home.  Sunlight will be blocked, and fluorescent lights will have UV filters.
  • Listen carefully to any special instructions you are given for the handling of specific materials.  You may be asked to use special racks to view large formats, or to use small sandbags to keep volumes open to the page.
  • You should expect to pay more than usual for copies or photographs of materials.  This is usually not on a self-service basis, since special equipment and specially trained staff will be employed to protect the materials.
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