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PLSC 4346: Movements and Protests: Primary Resources

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're looking at. You will probably be using either social media, newspapers, NGO 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 they experienced. Primary sources can include photographs, interviews, novels, speeches, letters, statistical data, material artifacts, or treaties, all of which offer researchers evidence with which to reconstruct the past.

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

•    When, where, and why was it written?
•    What do you know about 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.
  • Include keywords like interview, letter, archive, digital library, digital collection, newspaper when searching for primary sources. With these kinds of searches keep your keywords broader. For example, you might try "Czechoslovakia communism archive digital" in Google.
  • See if your primary source has been used as a source by authoritative authors. Was it used as a source in a well regarded news organization? Are scholars citing the source? Try searching for the source in Library Search.
  • Some primary sources may include misinformation or bias, but they may still be useful to you as evidence. Be sure to know and explicitly state the context of how you are using it.

Social Media

Social media is a good resource for primary resources, however there are some challenges.

  • People communicate on private networks, delete their accounts, or delete posts. Search to see if an archival or research institution has an archive of social media from the events you are researching.
  • Beware of bots or other disinformation actors.
  • People tweet in various languages, so you need to speak the language or find an effective way to translate it.
  • A search engine like Google may or may not index the social media platform you want to search (or it may only search a short period of time).
  • Social media platforms don't always have good search tools.

Newspapers

Looking at newspaper coverage from the time period is a good way to find primary resources.

  • Look for local coverage from the region and time period you are studying, but it may not be in English.
  • Look for major newspapers in English that have international coverage.

Government Documents

Government documents and reports can be be very useful. Governments may cover an event in their territories in a different way then external organizations. 

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs)

Generally defined as: "nonprofit entities independent of governmental influence (although they may receive government funding)." 

Examples of NGOs (not a complete list):