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HIST 3364-01: Study & Writing: Space before Google Maps: Geography & Power


Organizing your Primary Material

This LibGuide provides introductory information to research, writing, and bibliographic instruction

What is a Primary Source

Primary sources are the items that get you as close as possible to the answer to your historical question. If you ask "Why did the chicken cross the road?" then the best, primary source might be to ask the chicken (oral interview). This is, however, history and the chicken might have already passed on to the great chicken coop or the chicken might be have an unreliable memory. In those cases, the best source might be the chicken's diary or a newspaper covering that historic road-crossing. In that situation, the newspaper is the document/object that gets you closest to an accurate answer, making it the primary source.

Examples of sources that might be primary include:

  • Speeches
  • Diaries
  • Autobiographies/Memoirs
  • Letters
  • Interviews
  • Images
  • Audio or Video Recordings
  • Newspaper Articles
  • Magazine/Periodical Articles (written at the time studied)
  • Archival Records/Logs/Data
  • Political/Legal Documents
Note that part of the challenge in identifying a primary source is that it depends on the question. Sources that seem like secondary material--say an encyclopedia--can be primary if the question is "How did late 19th-century encyclopedias depict US Reconstruction?" Suddenly, the closest you can get to the question are those beautiful encyclopedia. 

Approaching the Archive

Before going to the archive, have the following information prepared:

  • Research question and preliminary thesis;
  • Keyword maps for search archival collections;
  • Organizational plan for note-taking;
  • Set-up for storing digital material including photographs taken in the archive.

A good scholar organizes and tags their material as they go. It's a terrible feeling to remember that you read that interesting thing once and to have no idea when or where. 

Organizing Digital Objects

Keywords: Selecting and Collecting

There are two main purposes to your keywords:

  1. as search terms for your archival visit and
  2. for your notes and record keeping.

Begin collecting keywords before you visit the archive to use as search terms to look through finding aids or archival catalogs. To do this, write out your research question (i.e., why did the chicken cross the road in 1975 in Brighton, MA?).


All those keywords you selected for going into the archive should be used as metadata for sorting and organizing your primary sources. There are a few vital pieces of information you should note and track as you work:

  • Author
  • Title of document (if it exists)
  • Date of creation/publication
  • Type of document
  • Source
  • Keywords associated with your project

Consider using Zotero and/or Tropy to keep that information in a centralized spot.