About this tutorial

Lantern slide from a presentation showing YMCA Lifeguard training in Japan, ca. 1920's
Lantern slide from a presentation showing YMCA Lifeguard training in Japan, ca. 1920's

Doing research in the Archives and Special Collections at the University of Minnesota is more than just finding an old document. You will need some skills to effectively investigate and explore everything you find.

After completing this tutorial, you will be able to:

  • Understand the importance of using primary sources in your research
  • Recognize the features of a primary source
  • Apply the Research, Review, Reflect, and Record process to be more successful in all of your research

What are primary sources?

Primary sources are the “raw material” of history


Danger in familiarities, created 1922, Contributor is American Social Health Association
Poster teaching the "correct dancing position." From a sexual health poster series for young women created by the American Social Hygiene Association in 1922. Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries.

Primary sources are created in the past and have historical research value

Promotional Poster for the United War Work campaign which raised money for the YMCAs WWI relief work, 1919
Promotional Poster for the United War Work campaign which raised money for the YMCAs WWI relief work, 1919

Primary sources help you understand past events from a firsthand or insider perspective

Cropped copy of a handwritten letter by Alice Stone Blackwell, editor of the WOMEN'S JOURNAL, to Bedros Keljik on the topics of Armenian poetry translation and recent news. Created 1894-01-27
Letter by Alice Stone Blackwell, editor of the Women's Journal, to Bedros Keljik, 1894

Primary sources aren’t just old books, letters, or diaries. They include the full range of human communication and expression, from cuneiform tablets to posters to PDF files.

For any assignment, it is important to use your instructor's definition of primary sources.

Why use primary sources?

An anti-child labor illustration by George M. Richards from the pamphlet
An anti-child labor illustration by George M. Richards from the pamphlet "Child Labor Facts," 1938. Social Welfare History Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries

We use primary sources because they:

  • contextualize historical topics
  • give history a voice
  • allow you to interrogate and question common historical beliefs and narratives
  • are an opportunity to form your own interpretation rather than read someone else’s
  • help you get more out of sources, such as books or scholarly articles, by providing additional layers of information
  • Finally, they help make your research unique and more enjoyable to write and read!


Primary sources can be difficult to use because:

Their formats may be unfamiliar. For example, what is a telegram?

Telegram sent from Eleanor Roosevelt to Howard Haycraft inviting him to dinner and a play, 1933
Telegram sent from Eleanor Roosevelt to Howard Haycraft inviting him to dinner and a play, 1933

Their language and imagery may be different or even offensive

Association Men- Cover of YMCA publication Association Men promoting YMCA schools, 1920.
Association Men- Cover of YMCA publication Association Men promoting YMCA schools, 1920

Use a process to help with your research

Last Updated: Jun 29, 2021 3:37 PM