Written by Patricia Sipes

 I.  Source Types

      Before I launch into a discussion of using materials, it is important to understand the distinction between source types.  Part of the call for papers states that Ellipsis... does not accept papers written entirely on tertiary sources.

  • Tertiary sources are: compilations of previous materials, usually existing without much of an outward bias or opinion.  They generally provide a broad and vague overview of a topic. Examples include: encyclopaedias, most text books, survey articles, and directories.
  • Secondary sources (in the humanities) are: pieces written by someone who did not actually witness the event.  Your paper submitted here would be secondary, as would most essays, biographies, and books with directed purposes.  Magazines and newspapers are often considered secondary sources despite being from the same time period if you are using them purely for the facts rather than contextualization.
  • Primary sources are: pieces that directly witness the event or person.  This can be letters, manuscripts, notes, diaries, first hand newspaper/magazine accounts, and countless other things.

      The biggest issue with sources, particularly primary and secondary, is that they are relative.  While an old newspaper reporting the death of someone might be considered a secondary source if you are using it just for the information, if you are comparing it as an artefact itself, perhaps looking at how different media portrayed the person's death, it becomes a primary artefact.

II. Finding Materials

      Finding primary material can sometimes be tricky if you are not accustomed to looking for it, or if you are not sure what the institutions around you have to offer.  I was lucky enough to have a professor that knew and stressed the use of a particular archive that was in our area and dedicated to the Humanities.  The fact is, I had driven by the archive countless times without knowing that it was an archive simply because it was not housed in my institution.


      That being said, there are some good ways to try finding archives that house materials:

  • Talk to a professor in the field you are working on.  If they are particularly knowledgeable, why not interview them as a source?
  • Talk to your librarians.  Part of why they are there is to help you find things.  They often know amazing tidbits and can help steer you in the right direction.  
    • Ask them about archives not only on campus but in the area.
    • Ask them about whether your institute participates in some sort of inter-library loan system where you can request a book from another university that is perhaps too far away to travel to be sent to you.
    • Ask them where they think you can get more information, many students are unaware of all the online databases an institution subscribes to--quite a few have primary sources directly accessible at your fingertips.
  • Run an internet search for archives AND museums in your area.
    • Often there are some sort of archives attached to a museum.  You can always use displays as part of your source material, but you may be able to get access to other information/sources.
    • Again, if the museum works with material that is specifically applicable to your research, make an appointment to interview the head of the collection/department.  Interview them as a source while also asking them where you might go next.
  • As mentioned under the Librarian tick, look at the online databases you have at your disposal. Project MUSE and JSTOR, for example, have a plethora of primary (and secondary) material that you can access and print from your computer.
  • IF you find an archive that is out of the range you are able to travel, you can often pay for research and facsimiles to be sent to you.
  • If you are working with a subject or author where there are trusts, organizations or societies involved, check their website.  Often times, they may have a listing of where materials pertaining to their subject/author is housed or have their own online database of primary material.

Other Sources

      In addition to archives, there are other sources that can be more easy to obtain and contain primary material:

  • You can often find books of correspondences between authors.  Even letter collections are commonly published.
  • Photography books and original films (especially war reels) can often be found and can be utilized as primary source material.
    • Be careful with photographs and film, as like words, they are multi layered.  The are immensely complex and require visual analysis as well as contextualization to completely understand.
  • IF you are using newspapers as primary sources, you can find a lot of that online now.  However, you may also be able to access it through microfische/microfilm.

 III. Using Materials

      Note: part of this section is covered in the Evaluating Sources section, which is worth looking at if you have not already.

      This section is NOT about how to apply the primary source to your research, but rather, a few thoughts to keep in mind when using and looking at the material.

Archive Rules

      Before I start in on that, a few notes about archives:

  • Do not just blindly show up at an archive.  If at all possible, know what you would like to look at.  As well, make sure that you do not need any forms or appointments to access the archive.  Make sure all forms are complete before going to an archive.
  • Make sure to follow the archive rules.  Many archives do not allow pens or white paper into their facilities.  Some may not even permit personal computers, be prepared.
  • Also be prepared that if you make copies, it will cost you.  Some archives actively accept credit cards, others will only take cash.  Also be prepared to wait for your copies, especially if there are a lot of pages to be photocopied.

Contextualizing Document

     When you do sit down with the sources, whether it be archival materials or published materials, there are major things you should look for.  As a general rule, you need to try and contextualize (in the big picture and as directly related to your research) the pieces.   There are two major question sets I use to start thinking about an piece I find:

  • What collection is it a part of?  How is this person important to the subject that you are studying?
  • Can you contextualize the piece in a timestream?  If it is a letter or something that belongs chronologically with other things, do you have access to the full set?

Examining Document

      While I can't speak for visual materials, there are certain things to pay special attention to when working with letters and manuscripts:

  • Always check the backs of pages.  Is the manuscript typed or written on the back of another document?  Are there notes on the back that add more insight?
  • Always try and decipher what has been blacked or crossed out.  A lot of times, the edits are extremely fascinating.
  • Look at the tone of letters as well as how the letter is written.  The precision of handwriting and what it is written on can often tell you a lot about the relationship between the correspondents.
  • Look at the paper itself.  Does it have a letter head?  What sort of paper is it?  Does this tell you something about the society? 
  • Pay close attention to who the correspondents are.  Writing to a fifth grade class will look, read, and sound differently than writing to a publisher, sweetheart, or friend.

IV. Caveats and Tips

There are a few notes on working with primary material that I feel need to be shared, learn from my experience and do not make the same mistakes:

  • If you are have a hard time deciphering what someone has written, transcribe what you are reading.  If you sit the item down and come back to it later, you will have to try and reread the whole thing again.  Eventually, you WILL get used to the handwriting, but when starting out work, if they are hard to read, transcribe.  It will take more time, but be worth it in the long run.
  • Earlier, I said pay close attention to edits.  If something is blacked out, but you can still read it, do not bet on it being readable in scans or copies.  If whatever is under that black out is important to you, WRITE IT DOWN.
  • Do not bet on your copies.  If there is a quote that you particularly need, write it down.  There could be any number of issues with your copies that could make them late.
  • Go to the archive twice or more if you can.  When you look at a primary source with fresh eyes, each time something new will pop up.
  • Do not be afraid to ask for something pulled that you are not entirely sure about.  Sometimes the best discoveries come from taking a chance on the unknown.
  • Understand the limits and staff at the archive.  Do not ask for everything.  
  • Go to the archive with a friend or fellow scholar.  If you can't decipher some small scrawl, maybe your partner will.