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HIST 4300: Revolutions and Counterrevolutions: Primary Sources

Resources for research on the Cold War in Latin America

Using Primary Sources

Primary sources are original documents associated with past events.

A primary source is any item from the time period of the event that you are researching. You will probably seek sources using archives (some digitized), newspapers, social media, non-government organizations (NGOs), or government documents.

Primary sources tell the story as experienced by eyewitnesses or others near to events. These sources are invaluable to researchers because they help to depict "what actually happened," or at least what those who were there say that they experienced. Primary sources can include photographs, interviews, novels, speeches, letters, statistical data, material artifacts, or treaties. These sources offer researchers evidence with which to reconstruct the past.

Some questions to keep in mind when examining a primary source are:

  • When, where, and why was it written?
  • What is the author's role in society? The author's worldview?
  • For whom was the document intended? What was its purpose?
  • How typical was this opinion for the period?
  • Is there evidence that corroborates the author's depiction?
  • What is the context of the document?

Search and Evaluation Strategies

  • Use good secondary sources as clues to finding primary sources.
  • Use keywords such as interview, letter, writings, archive, digital collection, newspaper when searching. (Example: a keyword search using  "Cuban Revolution digital archive" in Google.
  • See if your primary source has been used as a source by authoritative authors. Are scholars citing the source? Are well-regarded news organizations?
  • Some primary sources will have bias or misinformation, but they can still be useful as evidence. Be sure to know and explicitly state the context of how you are using such a source.

Primary sources databases

Primary Sources: Museums and Archives