There will be cases where you need to use primary sources for an assignment, whether you are in the sciences, social sciences or humanities.
As a quick refresher, defined by Western University, primary sources are “documents or physical objects written or created during the time under study. Such sources were present during an experience or time period, and offer an inside view of a particular event.”
For those involved in humanities or social sciences, that includes objects such as diaries, letters, photographs and government documents. Whereas those in the sciences are looking for original research articles.
Today we will focus on some search strategies for students in the humanities since there is often more work involved in finding the right primary source.
Let’s say you are a history student working on a paper about the MS St. Louis ship that left Hamburg for Cuba in 1939 and you were interested in the accounts of any survivors of the voyage. Right off the bat, you may know you want to find sources such as diary entries, newspaper articles, or letters that give a first hand account of the journey.
But wait! Before you start searching for sources, you’re going to want to do a little “presearch research” in order to find some key information that will help guide your research. That means you’ll want to find out of there were any key figures involved, dates, locations, and other pertinent information.
The next step is selecting a database that relates to your topic and is most likely to provide the information you are seeking. To find a databases with primary sources can feel a little overwhelming if you don’t know what to look for. Have no fear! We know it’s not easy, so we’ve taken the guess work out by putting together some research guides that include primary sources.
Brescia offers a research guide with a tab for primary sources for the following programs. We recommend checking them out.
Additionally, Western has a great research guide for students studying history that include digital sources for different areas of the world.
Another hint? Check out some of Western’s research guides to find more primary sources not listed above. You’ll note that different history courses will have their own research guide, which can provide a great number of primary source databases!
So what do we know about our topic that will help us get started? Well, we know that it was called the MS St Louis and it left Hamburg, Germany on May 13, 1939 for Havana, Cuba with 936 Jewish refugees who were later denied entry with the exception of 22 passengers. The captain was Gustav Schröder and the journey itself was called “The Voyage of the Damned”.
As an example for our particular search, we’re going to visitProQuest Historical Newspapers, which covers articles from established newspapers beginning in the 18th Century.
When you first visit ProQuest, you can opt to look at a list of the databases available to search by selecting the Database button at the top of the page. This will allow you to check off specific databases that are most relevant to your search.
We selected all of the databases that began with ProQuest Historical Newspapers, which included The Atlanta Constitution, The Boston Globe, and Chicago Tribune. See below for an example of what these selections would look like from a user’s perspective in ProQuest.
Using the Advanced Search, you can combine your keywords to create a search query. For example, we used “MS St Louis”, “Jewish Refugee”, “Jewish Immigrant”, and “1939” in a general search.
You can keep in general, like we have above, or get more specific depending on your topic by using the dropdown menus. Remember that you are never stuck with just one search query if it is not producing desirable results. Tweaking or adding in new words can make all the difference!
Menu option one: select AND, OR, or NOT to limit or refine a search. AND will include it in the search, OR will look for one keyword or another keyword if the previous is unavailable in a document, and NOT will not produce and results that include that keyword.
Menu option two: select from the dropdown to refine where you want to search. For example, ANYWHERE will pull from anywhere within a document, ABSTRACT will only produce documents that feature a keyword in the abstract, DOCUMENT TEXT will only search within the text of a document, not the title, and so on.
With this search, we received 335 results! To further refine it, you may want to select from the left hand side the document type, a specific newspaper, the year, and more, which will alter the number of results.
As you can see, we had success with our initial search query, finding a news article interviewing survivors of the MS St Louis.
Other primary source databases may not be as intuitive to search, or the possibilities within their search bar may be limiting because your findings are based on what they have available to them. For example, a database like the North American Immigrant Letters, Diaries, and Oral Histories has a wealth of rich information, but availability and relation to your topic is dependent upon what they have stored in their database. With these databases, it is very beneficial to have specific names and dates pertaining to your topic to help with the search, otherwise it can feel like you’re looking for a needle in the haystack.
Additionally, there are databases accessible outside of the library catalogue, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the New York Public Library’s Digital Collection, or Archives Canada.
As always, feel free to visit the library or book an appointment with a librarian to help find primary sources or for any research related questions!