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This course guide has been designed to assist you in finding resources for research on American literature. Feel free at any time to use our Ask Us Anything chat, email, or instant answers service for additional assistance.
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Using Primary and Secondary Sources
Use the boxes below to find archival collections and primary source material (both analog and digital). The freely available ebook collections may contain older texts that could be considered primary sources (depending on the context). For instance, if you are studying the history of camp life during the Civil War, you may find diaries or memoirs written by Civil War soldiers in these ebook collections. These original accounts of Civil War camp conditions would be considered primary sources.
A primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time period you are studying. These sources offer a contemporary view of a certain event. Examples of primary sources are: diaries, letters, photographs, official documents, interviews, and works of art. Primary sources are written by individuals who were involved in the event or lived in the time period you are studying. In Literary Studies, primary sources can be extremely useful in creating cultural context.
A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. These sources are removed from the event. While a secondary sources may include a picture or quote from a primary source (to illustrate a point), these sources were not created when the event under study took place. Examples of secondary sources are: books, articles, or websites about the effects of a certain event. Secondary sources are written by authors who did not participate and/or were not alive during the events or time period you are studying. Secondary sources are useful in contextualizing the importance of your topic, giving evidence to a claim, and situating your research in the larger scholarly context.
Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between a primary source and a secondary source. For example, we often think of books as secondary sources, but many books contain published versions of primary sources (to make them more accessible to a wider audience; before the internet the only way to find primary sources was to either visit an archives, which could be far away from where you lived, or to use published collections of primary source material). If you are unsure whether the source you want to examine for a research project is primary or secondary, don't hesitate to get a second opinion-- just schedule an appointment or email me, Josefine Smith.
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