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Primary Sources in Western European History

About This InfoGuide

This InfoGuide contains primary source resources and research strategies in Western European History, including France, Spain, Germany, Italy, the Low Countries, and Scandinavia.  The British Isles are covered in a separate InfoGuide.

Getting Started

Gather the information you have about your topic and consider what you still need to know before you start researching.  You can find this information through reference sources and through reading related secondary sources, such as books and articles.  Make a list of:

  • Dates
  • Places
  • Names of persons involved, organizations, government agencies, societies, etc.

Know Before You Go!

Before you begin your primary source research, think about what types of primary sources might have been produced that would be relevant; think also about which persons or organizations might have produced materials.  Some possible types of sources:

Books Photographs and images
Magazine and Newspaper Articles Cartoons and Advertisements
Diaries and Journals Movies, videos, DVDs
Memoirs and Autobiographies Audio recordings
Interviews Public Opinion Polls
Letters Fiction
Speeches Research Data and Statistics
Documents produced by organizations Documents produced by government agencies, including congressional hearings and census records

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources were either created during the time period being studied or were created at a later date by a participant in the events being studied (as in the case of memoirs).  They reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer.  Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period.  Some types of primary sources 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

Evaluating Primary Sources

When you are evaluating primary sources, consider these aspects of the source:

  1. How close is the source to the event, in both time and space?
  2. What is the researcher's point of view or attitude toward the event?
  3. What is the creator's reason for representing the event in the form (diary, letter, article, artificact) that he or she did?
  4. For whom was this source intended?
  5. How much time has elapsed between the event itself, the representation through the source, and the present?
  6. How has the source been preserved or transmitted?  Why was this source preserved as opposed to others?
  7. Is this an accurate representation of the event, based on comparison with other source?