No Stone Left Unturned. No Source Left Behind.

Those who are educators and those who have been educated in recent years know the slogan “no child left behind.”  They also are well aware that despite the rhetoric of administrators and politicians, children continue to be faceless, their individual needs neglected.  To often, slogans and catch phrases invite indifference.  Not surprisingly, when a student sees in a syllabus “exhaustive use of primary sources” and other such admonitions of professors assigning research papers, their efforts turn to finding a few newspaper articles or commonly-cited documents.  They get through the class with a C or a low B at best, and they often are happy to have made it through the course.  Their minimalist approach may reflect the little interest they have in their topic, or they may have had inadequate preparation to undertake research.  Words of encouragement may aid the student with a lack of commitment, but moral support will be of little use to students who lack basic research skills.

Avoiding the search for documentary evidence in the field of history is as illogical as a scientist who shuns performing original experiments in the laboratory.  Just as the scientific community does not hold such a scientist in high regard, historians devalue the work of anyone attempting to analyze history without an abundance of primary sources.  Getting those sources are essential, and with persistence along with good techniques, students will find the material they need.  Researching is not a talent; it is a skill one can learn.  Like a good weight-loss program that requires exercise, a good diet, and time, tackling a social science research project demands hard work in the area of research, good primary and secondary sources, and time to digest the sources and to write.  Advice about planning, reading, and writing appear in other sections of this web site, so here the focus will be helping students ensure that their research papers are based on a diet high in primary sources.  In time, students who strive to find as many primary sources as possible for a research paper will achieve the enviable reputation of leaving no stone left unturned, no source left behind.

The hunt for primary sources can begin in several places: the citations found in secondary sources, bibliographies and other reference works, card catalogs, archival holdings, government documents, Internet, and elsewhere.  The starting place matters little, although many times historians arrive at a topic because they are reading secondary sources, that is, texts and monographs.  Therefore, secondary sources are a common point from which historians launch their search for primary sources.  The quest then takes them to other locations.  Because a historian’s understanding of a topic increases over time, it is logical to return to sources one has consulted earlier.  Seeing those bibliographies or materials after one has gained a perspective on the subject often enables the historian to reconsider material once discarded or see evidence that once seemed irrelevant.

Old Aunt Molly downsized her century-old home in preparation for a move into a retirement community and has given certain family members a number of her possessions.  Two nieces received from Aunt Molly a bundle of letters her mother had exchanged in her youth with her first love.  The two sisters read the letters and met for lunch to discuss a small part of their grandmother’s life.  One concluded that the grandmother was hopelessly heartbroken when she learned that her love had found another.  The other concluded that although she was sad, her letters indicated that she, too, was contemplating the end of the relationship.  Two historians reading the same documents can reach similarly disparate conclusions, which is why a historian often begins an investigation in to the past by examining the documents other historians have used.  Students, therefore, might first consider the primary sources historians used to write their texts and monographs.  What historians have written may inspire, but the sources in their bibliography and footnotes may contain lead to added novel interpretations.  The reader also should ask what sources an author may have missed or intentionally failed to include.

I am reminded of my own research for my doctoral dissertation.  After examining all the primary sources in various archival funds in Prague that others had used, one historian told me of an archive in Vienna that surely would contain material for me.  I was familiar with the archive from reading diplomatic history and responded that any material it possessed regarding the internal affairs of Czechoslovakia between the wars, which was what I needed, surely either was minimal or nonexistent.  After all, that archive was open to Western scholars when the best sources in Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia were closed.  Had it contained anything of value, others would have cited it.  Upon his insistence, I traveled to Vienna, thinking I would spend a relaxing few days roaming the Ringstraße because the archive was barren.  To my surprise, it contained an amazing amount of material.  Only as I sorted through the material did I understand that no other historian had used it because they would have had to sort through an incredible amount of material and question stated assumptions about politics in the Czechoslovak First Republic.  It was work I was willing to undertake.  Had I not been open to sources other historians had missed, my analysis would have been weak.

Secondary sources may be a perfect place to start, but researchers must go beyond that stage to find other primary sources.  After all, a variety of perspectives improves the quality of analysis.  The first step in this direction involves a trip to the library.  It is logical to start with the library at the college or university where one studies, but there are other possibilities.  Perhaps one is contemplating a relaxing trip to another city or a visit to friends or relatives where there is a major university.  Investing several hours in a bit of research in a library with a different collection may pay big dividends, especially if its holdings are better for one’s chosen topic than the library at one’s home institution.  Yet, students are loathe to enter a library as though they were medieval workers entering a salt mine.  A bookstore in the Bay Area of California in business from the middle of the 1970s until the middle of the 1990s was called “A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books,” a name a short story of Ernest Hemingway had inspired.  It indeed was flooded with light and had comfortable seating that encouraged shoppers to browse the books they considered buying.  Libraries are just as inviting, and students should not hesitate entering the stacks and getting their fingers a little dusty.  After all, no campus map I have seen warns hic sunt leones on the diagram that represents the main library.

One of the most neglected portions of the library is the reference section.  There one finds indexes to periodicals, bibliographies, and handbooks, the latter two sometimes being shelved in the main stacks.  Newspapers and news magazines are invaluable primary sources, and some of them, including the New York Times and the Times of London, have indexes that spare the reader countless hours of eyestrain and the fear of overlooking some essential article.  Bibliographies come in several forms.  There are bibliographies of bibliographies, bibliographies of regions and countries, and topical bibliographies.  In general, bibliographies may focus on secondary or primary sources or have a mix of the two.  Handbooks record basic history, provide chronologies, statistics and lists, and give the reader useful sources.  Libraries also contain special sections for government papers, United Nations documents, and materials from other international organizations.  Nobody knows the holdings of a library better than a reference librarian, and at most university libraries, they specialize in certain fields.  Make sure to find the one who assists social scientists, particularly historians.

Few students are at institutions with exhaustive collections in their chosen field, which necessitates that they use interlibrary loan, usually abbreviated ILL.  Students and professors at every college and university have the ability to borrow books from other institutions within a consortium of private or state institutions as well as from other libraries.  Once a library patron has identified a particular source and is able to supply a reference to it in another library catalog, bibliography, or secondary source, that individual can order it through interlibrary loan, usually with a few clicks on a computer.  The item may take two or more weeks to arrive, although articles now come digitized instead of being photocopied and may arrive in one’s e-mail box in a matter of days.  There are some limitations to interlibrary loan.  It functions in the United States and not abroad, so limit requests to sources located in American institutions.  No libraries lend journals, but they will copy individual articles.  Many do not lend their dissertations and theses.  Sometimes, a library will deny a request because their copy is fragile or they have determined that there are only a few copies available in the United States.  Archives, even if they are associated with libraries, do not lend material, even if one is physically present at the archive, let alone through interlibrary loan.  Finally, there are some institutions that simply do not lend anything from their collection through interlibrary loan.

Another dusty place where geriatric historians sit covered with lichen and moss is the archive.  Almost every university has an archive with cataloged holdings and archivists who are familiar with the collection.  Some archives only focus on the university and its immediate surroundings.  Others have an aggressive policy that makes them valuable for scholars who otherwise would have no interest in that university’s past or its community.  Even a small college archive may accept materials from a local resident or alumnus with experience outside the region or even abroad.  The only way to discover what is in an archive is to view a catalog of its holdings or to ask the archivist, who also may know about the holdings of other nearby archives.  There are federal, state, and local archives that are open to researchers at all levels.  Corporate archives, although not always open to the public, are centered on the development of one business, but their holdings may contain a wealth of information about regional and local history.  Generally, the catalogs of holdings for archives is on line, and they are the first step not only in identifying the usefulness of an archive but in pinpointing what is useful from the millions of pieces of paper.  Of course, archivists also are a great help with narrowing a search.  Some archives have free reference services for very specific requests.  For example, if one were to identify through a holdings list available on the Internet that a particular fund contains fifty documents and letters pertaining to your topic, you may request that the archive digitize the material and send you a copy.  They may require a small fee, but having the material may be invaluable.  It also may be less expensive than traveling to that archive.  Finally, some archives finance travel for research using their materials.  For the most part, this sort of funding is available to graduate students and professors, but one always should ask.  As the old saying goes: if you don’t ask, you know the answer.

Eventually, the researcher comes to the Internet.  The historian has the potential of discovering hundreds of web pages that may provide primary source evidence.  A researcher looking for documents pertaining to the Crimean War might be prompted to do a search simply beginning with Crimean War, but the search engine will provide first the most popular sites, including Wikipedia, and other, often times more reliable general reference sites.  Doing a search using Crimean War documents provides some sites with primary sources.  One then can repeat the search substituting a number of terms for documents: sources, primary sources, memoirs, treaties, official papers, accounts, diaries, diplomatic documents, newspapers, newspaper articles, interviews (note that this search yields mostly secondary sources), and more.  Sometimes, the search may appear to lead to a dead end, but one should view sites on several pages to spark more ideas.  Keep a list of the terms searched and add to it over time.  Students also should check the web sites of archives because a growing number of archives are digitizing certain components of their holdings.  In the case of the Crimean War, a search using the terms Crimean War archives reveals a number of archival materials available on line.

Frequently, professors place limits on the number of sources students can use from the Internet because they want students to learn the methods of finding printed sources.  The Internet, with all its information, does not contain all the written and printed material in the world.  After all, Google Books contains 15 million books, only about 12 percent of all the books thought to be in existence.  Periodicals and archival collections increase the amount of printed material to a staggering amount.  Even if a professor shuns the Internet, a student still can use it to identify materials that are in libraries.  Furthermore, some professors who exclude or limit Internet sources do not place restrictions on using print sources that are available electronically.  Always check to be sure of the stipulations for a particular course.

Used bookstores are not the most effective places to find primary sources, but they may contain surprises.  One used bookstore may be useless for historians, while another is a goldmine.  Much depends on the interest of the bookseller and how the store acquires its holdings.  Although many used bookstores have closed their doors with the growth of the Internet, others remain, in part because the owners realize that they have to shelve their inventory somewhere, and their web sites sometimes subsidize the storefront operation.  Used or antiquarian booksellers still tend to be in major cities in high traffic areas, but some have moved to less expensive locations.  Wandering into a shop and perusing the shelves may reveal sources one never imagined that existed or volumes that one always hoped to own.  Dedicated book collectors find it hard to enter a used bookstore without buying something because the addicting aroma of old printed materials makes the offerings on the bookshelf irresistible (and often weighty and expensive).

Aside from considering where to find primary sources, one should think of the types of primary sources that reveal information about a topic.  Newspapers, memoirs, government documents, treaties, and statistics are common types of documentary evidence.  Other information can come in unexpected ways.  When considering the internal affairs of a country, always check diplomatic papers.  After all, diplomats not only convey the wishes of their country, but they serve as the eyes and ears of their homeland.  Diplomatic reports contain information about internal politics, economics, foreign trade, social conditions, and military readiness.  Selected reports may be published, but they commonly are available in central government archives.  Sometimes they may be available in their entirety on microfilm or in some other microform or digitized format.  Another neglected source is the travel journal.  In the past, just as in the present, travelers to popular and remote places wrote about their experience so that those who could not journey to these destinations in real life could do so vicariously.  These remembrances often contain valuable glimpses into the landscape, buildings, people, customs, and events of the past.  Students also should not neglect maps, photographs, paintings, and other illustrations, but if a writer includes them in a paper, it is imperative to explain their importance and analyze them, just as one would do with statistics.  In short, illustrations never should be a means of merely decorating the paper or extending its length.

Frequently, outsiders view the work of historians as isolating, but there always is a small cadre of historians researching similar projects, even though the relationship between their research may be tangential.  Historians communicate with each other on a regular basis and discuss the sources they are using.  Similarly, students working on a research project should determine if anyone is pursuing a related topic because it is highly possible that one person may come across material that would be of interest to the other.  Similarly, there is nothing improper about contacting a student or researcher at another institution to exchange ideas about sources.  Networking for historians, as in other fields, is essential.

Instead of dreading the process of finding primary sources, students should approach the task as a great scavenger hunt that extends the length of an entire semester.  With experience, students will become proficient at finding sources, even when a topic appears on the surface to be terribly obscure.  Furthermore, researching is a skill that history students can transfer to other professions.  When I began working for a masonry restoration contractor shortly after receiving my master’s degree, I was given the task of determining the type of product that the famous American architect Daniel Burnham had used on a building in Pittsburgh shortly before the First World War.  The blueprints revealed the name, but the manufacturer no longer existed.  Within a day, I had not only identified the product, I had specific instructions on how to clean and restore it, which were the crucial bits of information our firm needed.  That experience established my reputation as the individual who could find the answers to all sorts of questions.  The challenge for me was entertaining, and I often found that the search expanded my knowledge of building construction in many directions.  I realized then that studying history and researching intangible things related to the past had served me well.  How easy it was for me to find the information I and others needed in the tangible world of building restoration.

Typical Primary Sources

The list below is far from complete and is intended only to make students think about what possibilities exist for finding primary sources.

artifacts, that is, items from material culture (coins, pottery, inscriptions, clothing, and more)
artistic works (literature, art, music, and more)
biographies written in cooperation with the subject (official biographies)
business, civic, and non-profit records
films and documentary films
government documents (local, regional, state, national)
    diplomatic reports (internal and external affairs)
    internal memoranda
    laws and orders
    legislative and special commission findings
    legislative records
    military records and reports
    official publications
    police reports
        census records
        statistical yearbooks
        voting statistics
images (cartoons, caricatures, illustrations, paintings, photographs, posters)
international organization records (UN, League of Nations, Red Cross, and so on)
news magazines (articles that explain how events transpired)
newspaper reports (articles that explain how events transpired)
news reporting services (UPI, AP, Current Digest of the Soviet Press, and so on)
oral histories
proceedings (e.g., meetings of political parties or trade unions)
shortwave radio broadcast archives
travel memoirs

Rev. 4.VIII.2013