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ARTH 315/HIST 316 - History of Modern Architecture

Resources and tips for Prof. Park's History of Modern Architecture course

Understanding Primary Sources

What are primary sources?

Primary sources are documents (or other kinds of materials) created in the past that can help us gain insight into a specific time period. Primary sources provide ideas and evidence about events in the past. Scholars use the evidence found in primary sources to draw conclusions and construct narratives about the past.

In art history, primary sources might include:

  • letters or records of sales between artists, patrons, dealers, friends, etc.
  • exhibition reviews or eyewitness accounts of events (reviews of the 1913 Armory Show, photos of World's Fairs)
  • ephemera (items not meant to be kept long-term): ticket stubs, exhibit pamphlets, t-shirts, playbills, tote bags, etc.

Primary sources can also include the original object of study, such as buildings, original paintings or photographs, historic fashion or furniture, and other objects and remnants of material culture.

The boxes below include links to many digital collections of primary sources. You can also use these strategies to find primary sources in other ways (for example, diaries or letters that have been reproduced in books).

  • Digital collections: Digital collections are often organized by topic, or allow you to search by keyword or subject headings (i.e. special terms that are used to label what a source is about, like "Labor laws" or "Civil Rights Movement"). Digitized archival collections may also be organized using a finding aid.
  • Library catalogs: Some primary sources are reproduced/republished into books. To find these in a library, try searching for your keywords and one of these subject headings for primary sources:
    --correspondence; --description and travel; --interviews; --maps; --narratives; --collections; sources; --pictorial works; --diaries; --biography, --quotations; --discovery and exploration

When working with primary sources, you can start with simple questions that help you understand the object's context (who made it, how, and why?). It's also useful to keep in mind what possible questions you can ask of the material beyond the obvious: what arguments or assumptions are made by the author of the material? How does it relate to other texts or sources? What rhetorical strategies does the author use?

The questions below are not a full list, but can help you get started with evaluating and thinking about primary sources and how they might support your own research.

  • Who created this document? Who took this photo? Who wrote and received this letter?   

  • What do you know about this organization?

  • What do you know about the historical context of the source?

  • How does the source creator fit into this historical context? What was his or her role?

  • Why was this source created?

  • What kinds of factual information does it provide?

  • What is conveyed, but not necessarily intentionally?

  • What is not conveyed in this source? What isn't being said?

  • What us surprising, unique, puzzling, interesting in this source?

  • How does the creator of this source convey information?

  • How is the world today different than when this document was created?

  • How might this source have been received in its time?

  • How does this source compare to accounts in secondary sources?

  • What do you believe and what doesn't seem credible about this source?

  • What do you still not know and where might you find it?

General Collections

These collections contain primary sources on a large variety of topics, places, and points in history. If you're just getting started, they can be a good way to explore possible objects or themes you can address in your coursework.

Industry, Technology, Urbanism, Design

Prints, Ads, & Consumer Culture

Fine, Popular, and Performing Arts

New Media: Photography and Film