Discovering the Source: Exploring Primary Sources in Special Collections



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Home >> Special Collections & University Archives >> Exhibits and Events >> Exhibits in the Library >> Discovering the Source: Exploring Primary Sources in Special Collections

January 3, 2011 to June 29, 2011

Special Collections and University Archives Reading Room
Library and Information Access, San Diego State University

Discovering the Source PosterPrimary sources are unique historical materials that provide first-hand information about an event, life, or historical period. As original sources written or produced during an historical era, they serve as documentation of that era, and provide evidence for questions about that era. As tangible fragments of the past, primary sources allow us to touch, feel, see, and hear historical moments that we can piece together into a rich understanding of a complex past.

This exhibit displays the many types of primary sources that can be found in Special Collections and University Archives: letters, diaries, artifacts, maps, audio/visual materials, published books, notes and drafts, organizational records, reports, surveys, photographs, scrapbooks, and more. Through engaging examples of different types of primary sources, this exhibit explores how each type can be used in research, and considers what kinds of questions primary sources can both raise and answer. Whether they are consulted in their original format, in an edited book, on microform, or online, primary sources can produce as many questions as they resolve. This powerful quality is part of what makes primary sources significant to nearly every discipline.

By puzzling through the unfamiliar handwriting of a letter or a diary, or looking closely at a detail in an old photograph, or listening carefully to a voice in an oral history, we can connect to, recover, and be rewarded by the past.



Diaries and Journals:  Diaries can be particularly useful for understanding the point of view, opinions, or experiences of a particular individual.






Notes and Literary Drafts:  Notes and literary drafts are significant primary sources because they can be used to show the development of a work over time, to trace educational or research progression, or to reveal an individual’s intimate thoughts and personal evolution.





Ephemera: Ephemera has been called the “fragmentary documents of everyday life.” Printed items like flyers, tickets, postcards, calendars, greeting cards, or receipts were produced to be dispensable, and not necessarily to be preserved.





Scrapooks:  Combining images, words, and carefully saved bits and pieces of ephemera, scrapbooks can provide a sort of visual autobiography of their compilers.




Handwritten letter


Correspondence:  Letters from any era can provide unique and exciting insights into the conditions of daily life, personal accounts of historical occurrences, and narrative evidence about circumstances of the time.



Organizational Record


Organizational Records, Reports, and Surveys:  Meeting minutes, financial records, organizational charts, annual reports, bylaws and charters, and committee files provide evidence of an organization's development, relationships, and impact.





Published Sources:  Books, periodicals, and other printed texts can also be primary sources, depending on the topic being researched and how the material is approached.





Newspapers and Newsletters:  Newspapers and newsletters can provide valuable detail and insights into past events and issues.  They contain information about current events, informative articles, diverse features, and advertising.





ArtifactsArtifacts are three-dimensional objects, created and used by people, such as surgical instruments, weapons, pins, scientific objects and instruments, jewelry, clothing, and much more. 






Photographs and Photograph Albums:  From formal portraits to cityscapes to candid images, the common photograph visually documents everyday activities, culture, social conditions and status, as well as people and events. 



Reel to Reel


Audio-Visual Materials:  Audio-visual resources on disc, film, magnetic tape, and digital formats require intervening machinery to access the information.





Maps:  As primary sources, maps can expose data about discovery and exploration, cultural landscapes, transportation, and communication. Maps can even reveal historical misconceptions about certain peoples, territories, or worldviews.

Contact Us

Special Collections & University Archives Contact

Location: SDSU Library & Information Access, Library Addition Room 4410
Phone: 619.594.6791

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