Terminology: Primary Sources
The term archive describes the administrative unit taking responsibility for fiscal and legal considerations in preserving and giving access to the archival material.
The term “primary sources” describes the value of the materials from the point of view of the researcher as “his/her/their” evidence and witness to the event or phenomenon being studied.
Primary Source: "In scholarship, a document or record containing firsthand information or original data on a topic, used in preparing a derivative work. Primary sources include original manuscripts, periodical articles reporting original research or thought, diaries, memoirs, letters, journals, photographs, drawings, posters, film footage, sheet music, songs, interviews, government documents, public records, eyewitness accounts, newspaper clippings, etc." (ODLIS). In literary research, the author's works are considered a primary source.
Finding Primary Sources through Background Research. Tracing Sources Back to Archives and Collections.
Biography and Bio-Bibliography
Subject Databases (Bibliographic Indexes)
Published Editions and Historical Critical Editions of Source Materials and Works
Blogs & Listservs
Who, What, Where, When; Formulating Theories
Who is the likely producer or author of the source you seek? What kinds of materials did they produce to reach their particular audience? When did they produce the source, and what events or phenomena were going on at the time? Brainstorming these types of questions in a deliberate way can help you identify the types of archives you might need to look for:
Periodization, Chronology, Historiography
Databases for research often mostly serve large, distinct blocks of time; this means that each block of time has a completely distinct set of research tools:
For example, the database Historical Abstracts focuses on the history of the world from the 15th century onward. Historical Abstracts is for international research and does not include American History. US history is covered in America: History & Life. Neither Historical Abstracts nor America: History & Life cover Medieval Studies. Finding Medieval Texts in Western Manuscript Books necessitates a different set of resources. Considerations of chronology are also important in open databases. Take the German State Archive (Bundesarchiv) as an example.
Add “Chronology”, “Historiography” as search terms to your query in catalogs, for example:
Refining Search Vocabulary
Primary source types vary by discipline. What is the primary source that would lend evidence to your research? Adding a type of source to your search string helps refine the results.
Types of Primary Sources
Building Search Strings
The more detailed you search string is, the more relevant your results will be. Here is an excerpt from a guide at MIT.
Format, (type of material), including books, computer files, maps, mixed materials, serials, scores, sound recordings, and visual materials. If you already know the format of your source, select it after you enter your search string.
Whenever possible, use the subscribed version of Worldcat at Duke. Investigate the guide to Worldcat Expert Search. In the subscribed interface, you can use the research vocabulary you have developed (names, places, keywords, LC subjects, etc.) and click “Archival Material” below the search mask; you can also use the word “sources” in combination with research terms.
Digital Libraries of Aggregated Primary Sources
Digital Libraries and other reproductions of primary sources are substitutes that help explore primary sources from your home base at Duke. It is increasingly important for grant applications that you understand the digital landscape in your field of research comprehensively. Only with that knowledge can you make the case for physically traveling to an archive in the US or abroad.
Subscription Databases that are Digital Libraries of Aggregated Primary Sources
Duke Research Databases are tagged by subject and type. Click All Subjects and select the relevant discipline to research the scholarship; Click All Database Types to scan 319 Primary Source Collections.
Public Domain (free to user, open) Digital Libraries of Aggregated Primary Sources
There is no central index of open digital libraries; you will need to investigate primary source databases available in the public domain. Some major starting points are listed below.
Digital libraries can be scoped to a period, subject, or format, or they can be more general. Here are the broadest full-text resources
KIT also demonstrates that, even within Europe, some platforms are enclosed and do not share metadata with Internet search engines; for example, you will always have to remember to search Gallica, the digital library of France, separately. Talk to a subject librarian about relevant digital libraries for your discipline or region.
Duke Subscription Databases versus Public Domain Digital Libraries
The Duke Libraries database finder only lists databases that Duke subscribes to, and there is no centralized free online index for public domain libraries. The Gale directory of databases is a good start for researching electronic or digital content. Subject librarians can help further. Every world region has directories for public domain digital libraries. For example, if you read German, you can use the German directory of databases and digital projects in the German union catalog for all e-content; Datenbank InfoSystem (DBIS)
Below are five examples out of dozens of Western European Studies databases:
Duke Subscription Databases
Public Domain Databases
Archives Unbound ( 69 collections, many European Primary Docs)
Early English Books Online (EEBO)
Austrian Books Online Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek
Europeana digital content from across Europe
Gallica French National Library (BNF)
Koninklijke Bibliotheek Netherlands
Before digital libraries, entire collections were microfilmed to give researchers remote access. Duke owns such collections, and Duke collaborates to buy such collections together with the Center for Research Libraries (CRL). Collections that are held as microfilm at CRL can be loaned to Duke patrons. Work with a subject librarian on Interlibrary Requests.
The following title is an example of a microfilm collection held locally. Incunabula, the printing revolution in Europe, 1455-1500. Reading: Research Publications, 1995-1997. microfiche and guide. Perkins/Bostock Microforms Microfiche M9738 and Med Ctr Hist Lock Stks Grp qII Medical Incunabula (medical incunabula only).
Advanced Search Skills
“Internet Search Engines” offer an expert search just like databases do. The Google Power Searching tutorials by Google Search Education Online and books on Internet searching are useful in developing good strategies for an academic Internet search.
For searching “databases”, whether you are using catalogs, primary sources databases, or subject indexes, learn to search databases effectively. Investigate the following:
Proximity Operators in Electronic full-text Collections
Proximity searching is a search method that allows you to specify how close one word or phrase that you enter should be to another in the texts retrieved by your search. For example, a search for Galileo [Proximity Operator] 5 inquisition --- will retrieve all texts in which the word “Galileo” occurs within 5 words of the word “inquisition.” You can use this search to find if someone cites letters or diaries in association with a person’s name, and more.
Not all databases allow this; here are examples of Duke databases that allow this specialized search:
Each database offers a help sheet on this search, for example, EEBO explains how a proximity search is done in their database.