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WRTG 105 Utopia on the Page, in Theory, and in Practice (Corbeaux)

Library Handouts - Session II Primary Sources

Special Collections Librarian

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Erin Fisher
She/ Her/ Hers

Areas of Expertise

  • 18th and 19th Century Literature Collections
  • Children's Books/Literature
  • Technology and Science
  • Photography
  • Kodak
  • Religion
  • Spiritualism
Rush Rhees Library
755 Library Rd, Rochester, NY 14627

Social Science Librarian

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Justina Elmore
Learning Initiatives
Rush Rhees Library, Rm. 106
755 Library Rd, Rochester, NY 14627
League of Librarians
(585) 276-7845
Website Skype Contact: jusssty

What are primary sources?

Primary sources provide a first hand record and are documents or physical objects created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories. Examples include:

  • ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS (excerpts or translations acceptable): Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records 
  • CREATIVE WORKS: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art 
  • RELICS OR ARTIFACTS: Pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings

Secondary sources interpret and analyze primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them.  Examples include: Textbooks, journal articles, histories, criticisms, commentaries, and encyclopedias (e.g. Ebenezer Howard and the marriage of town and country: An introduction to Howard’s “Garden Cities of To-morrow”). 

Which Playground for Your Child? [poster]
 (circa 1935)

Analyzing primary sources

Exercise for Interrogating a primary source
When reading a primary source it is important to look at not just its contents, but an item's physicality.  Here are some guiding questions to answer as you examine a primary source:

  • Look at the physical nature of your source. What can you learn from the medium of the source? (Was it written on fancy paper in elegant handwriting, or on scrap-paper, scribbled in pencil? Typed? Are there things written in the margins?) What does this tell you?
  • Think about the purpose of the source. What was the author's message or argument? What were they trying to get across? Is the message explicit, or are there implicit messages as well?
  • What do you know about the maker? Race, class, occupation, religion, age, region, political beliefs? Does any of this matter? How?
  • Who constituted the intended audience? Was this source meant for one person's eyes, or for the public? 
  • Is it prescriptive (telling you what people thought should happen) or descriptive (telling you what people thought did happen)?
  • What historical questions can you answer using this source? 
  • What questions can this source NOT help you answer? What are the limitations of this type of source?

Questions to ask when you have multiple primary sources:

  • What questions do I have from examining these materials as a set?  What are the similarities? How do they differ? What greater inferences can be drawn about the historical context from the set?
  • What questions or further research might you have? (e.g. Are there thoughts or ideas that could be defined or explained? Is there specialized language or jargon? Are there references to places, events, or people, culture, etc?).
  • What other primary sources might I look for to help round out the story behind the sources you currently have?
  • What ideological theories or philosophies can be applied to the item?
  • How might I compare these sources to other readings, lectures, discussions and assignments in this course?

Finding Primary Sources & Grey Literature (Google Advanced Searching)

  1. Try using Google Advanced Search
  2. Google ignores the word AND as a search operator. But, typing OR in all caps between terms will find similar or related terms e.g. (Utopia* OR “garden city” OR “utopian city” OR “social city”) (“utopian planner” OR “Ebenezer Howard” OR “Frank Lloyd Wright” OR “Paolo Solari”)
  3. For grey literature, include search terms + terms like (report OR analysis OR summary OR overview OR data)
  4. For primary source material, include search terms + terms like (“digital collection OR archive OR gallery OR exhibit OR map* OR architect* OR design* OR draw* OR diagram*)
  5. Search for a particular document type e.g. search terms + filetype:xls
  6. Search at particular site e.g. OR OR OR OR
  7. Search a particular domain e.g. OR  OR  [See a full list of country code domains].
  8. Exclude words by using the "-" sign in front of the word you wish to exclude e.g. (Utopia* OR “garden city” OR “utopian city” OR “social city”) -religious

Additional Resources

Print Resources

Online resources