It is important to examine Primary sources with a critical eye, as they will be used as the core evidence in historical scholarship.
RUSA 's Guide to Evaluating Primary Source (linked below) asks you to consider the following when evaluating a primary source:
Who is the author or creator?
What biases or assumptions may have influenced the author or creator?
Who was the intended audience?
What is the origin of the primary source?
What was the significance of the source at the time it was created?
Has the source been edited or translated, or altered in some way from the original?
What questions could be answered about the time period by using this source?
What, if any, are the limitations of the source?
Does your understanding of the source fit with other scholars’ interpretations, or does it challenge their argument?
Primary source research requires some different strategies. Here are some tips to help you get started:
Start by doing some background research: Wikipedia and general library encyclopedias can help you determine key events, people, and common terminology used during the time period under study. It can be helpful to start by conducting a broad search to help locate important names or places. This will prove useful when conducting further searches for sources.
Limit Searches to Specific Time Periods: it is important to limit searches using date ranges to find primary sources, this is usually done through the advanced search options. Start with broader search terms combined with a more specific time period to account for changes in language, such as event names that were prescribed after the fact. It can help to include a few weeks surrounding an event to ensure getting results, with consideration for the rate of news to spread in that time period.
Use Primary Source language and keywords: To isolate primary sources, try using search terms that reflect the types of sources you want to find, such as speeches, pamphlets, diaries, correspondence, personal narratives, or firsthand. These terms can be combined with other descriptive key words.
Refine Collection Type: A tip for locating primary sources through libraries is using the collection type or department refinement option common in library catalog searches, sometimes located in the advanced search option. Most primary sources will be housed in a special collection or archive or in a specific department such as literary and historical manuscripts, unless available online through databases that deal in digital formats of historical documents.
Utilize Archival Finding Aids: Often, archival collections will have finding aids, which are descriptive inventories of archival collections intended to help users locate and identify relevant material.