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THE LIBRARY IS OPEN ONLINE! While our physical spaces remain closed, the CCNY Libraries team is working remotely to make library resources and services available online.

See updated information on remote services for Spring 2021 or find answers to frequently asked questions.

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Research Toolkit

Answers for common research questions.

Finding Primary Sources

Primary sources are materials that were either created during the time period being studied or were created at a later date by a participant in the events being studied, such as, a childhood memoir. They are original documents [i.e., they are not about another document or account] and reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer.

Primary sources enable you to get as close as possible to understanding the lived experiences of others and discovering what actually happened during an event. However, what constitutes a primary or secondary source depends on the context in which it is being used. For example, David McCullough’s biography of John Adams could be a secondary source for a paper about John Adams, but a primary source for a paper about how various historians have interpreted the life of John Adams. When in doubt, ask a librarian!

Examples of primary documents you could include, but are not limited to:

  • Artifacts [e.g. furniture or clothing, all from the time under study]
  • Audio recordings [e.g. radio programs]
  • Diaries
  • Internet communications on email, listservs, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms
  • Interviews [e.g., oral histories, telephone, e-mail]
  • Newspaper articles written at the time
  • Original official documents [e.g., birth certificate, will, marriage license, trial transcript]
  • Patents
  • Personal correspondence [e.g., letters]
  • Photographs
  • Proceedings of meetings, conferences and symposia
  • Records of organizations, government agencies [e.g. annual report, treaty, constitution, government document]
  • Speeches
  • Survey Research [e.g., market surveys, public opinion polls]
  • Transcripts of radio and television programs
  • Video recordings
  • Works of art, architecture, literature, and music [e.g., paintings, sculptures, musical scores, buildings, novels, poems]

Here are some databases that contain primary sources. For more suggestions on finding primary sources, both within and outside the library, ask a librarian!