Types and Formats

Two handwritten notebook pages.
Roger Baldwin’s notebook on the Amistad Case. Baldwin Family Papers (MS 55). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.

Archives and Manuscripts

Manuscript and archival materials are unique resources that can usually be found in only one library or institution (though digital copies or copies on microfilm or microfiche may be available elsewhere).

The term archives, when it refers to documents, as opposed to a place where documents are held, refers to the records created or received and maintained by an institution or organization in the course of its operations. The term manuscripts, which originally referred to handwritten items, now also refers to a body of papers of an individual or a family. Both terms can encompasses a broad array of documents and records of numerous formats and types. Archival records or manuscripts may include business and personal correspondence, diaries and journals, legal and financial documents, photographs, maps, architectural drawings, music manuscripts, printed music, objects, film, sound recordings, literary works, and digital media.

Two leather bound Bibles.
The Tyndale New Testament (closed, 1536) and the Tyndale Pentateuch (open, 1534). Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Books and Pamphlets

Determining what is a primary source can be tricky, and in no case is this more apparent than with books and pamphlets. From one vantage point, books are the quintessential secondary source: scholars use primary source materials such as letters and diaries to write books, which are in turn secondary sources.

However, books can also be a rich source of primary source material. In some instances, as in the case of published memoirs, autobiographies, and published documents, it is easy to determine when a book functions as a primary source. However, even secondary source materials can function as primary sources.

Typewritten education statistics from Swaziland
Primary school teaching staff by grade and title of teacher, Swaziland, Educational Statistics, 1971, from the Economic Growth Center Collection, Center for Science and Social Science Information.

Data

Data consists of information organized for systematic analysis and is now usually stored in digital form, although paper and tape data sets still exist and are useful. Data is an essential primary source for science and social science research, and is often created by organizations in the normal course of their operations or can be collected by researchers or others interested in particular topics. Data is often gathered from experiments, simulation and modeling, or various types of observation including geospatial, climate, and survey information.

Bound Yale dissertations.
Bound Yale dissertations. Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.

Dissertations

Dissertations are book-length studies based on original research and written in partial fulfillment of requirements for the doctoral degree. Although usually secondary sources, dissertations can themselves be primary sources or can be extremely helpful in identifying and locating primary sources.

Dissertations that function as primary sources might be edited versions of texts, or a doctoral thesis could be used to analyze the influence of a professor on a generation of graduate students and, by extension, on the teaching and writing in a discipline over a period of time. Because a dissertation is based on original research, its bibliography will contain references to primary sources used by the author and can often lead to manuscripts, diaries, newspapers, and other primary material of interest.

Printed pamphlet with illustration of a mosquito
United States War Department, This is Ann: She’s Dying to Meet You (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943). Cushing/Whitney Medical Library. Historical Library.

Ephemera

Ephemera are primary source materials that are often associated with temporary or short-lived use in everyday life, such as cards, tickets, and labels, but can also include documents that are meant to be saved, like banknotes and marriage certificates.  Generally, ephemera are primary sources that are incidental, transient, and unselfconscious, and while we often associate the term with paper, the category can also include digital ephemera, like social media status updates. An important part of their value as primary sources is the improbability of their survival. 

HUAC document about Communism
U.S. House of Representatives. Committee on Un-American Activities. 100 Things You Should Know About Communism Series (Washington, D.C.: U.S. House of Representatives, May 14, 1951). Center for Science and Social Science Information.

Government Documents

A government’s documents are direct evidence of its activities, functions, and policies. A wide range of primary sources are found in government documents: the hearings and debates of legislative bodies; the official text of laws, regulations, and treaties; records of government expenditures and finances; statistical compilations such as census data; investigative reports; scientific data; and many other sources that touch virtually all aspects of society and human endeavor.

While the United States government is one of the largest publishers in the world, government documents are also produced by regional, state, and local governments, and by international bodies such as the United Nations and the European Union. These institutions typically provide publications to designated depository libraries to ensure ongoing public access to government information.

Map of New Hampshire, Maine, and Canada
The direct route to the fishing and hunting resorts of New Hampshire, Maine, and Canada: Lake Winnipesaukee, Rangeley Lakes, Lake St. John, Lake Megantic. (Boston : R. A. Supply Co., May 3, 1897). Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Maps

Maps are created in particular cultural contexts by individuals as visual and textual representations of place and landscape. Just as manuscripts or art are subjective, maps have a point of view because they are representations of the world as seen through the eyes of the mapmaker. They can demonstrate political, social, or physical geographic change over time. Additionally, they offer insight into the people who made them and the time period in which they were created and used. Maps can also function as secondary sources because they may draw on information from other maps, data sets, or primary sources of information.

Woven patterned lidded basket.
Basket from the Southwestern United States. Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Objects and Artifacts

Once functional objects used by people, artifacts convey important information about the lives and histories of peoples. Artifacts are three-dimensional and, unlike books and manuscripts, can be either human-made or naturally occurring. While all collected artifacts are deemed as having documentary value, some are valued for their intrinsic worth, others for their artistic merit, and others for their historical significance or scientific value. Artifacts commonly used for research include:

  • War memorabilia such as mess kits, uniforms, and emblems
  • Cards and board games
  • Jewelry, clothing, and textiles
  • Inscribed tablets
  • Mineral and plant specimens
Photo of interview in progress
Oral History of American Music's Founder Vivian Perlis interviewing Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein (c. 1979). Oral History of American Music.

Oral Histories

Oral history interviews and audiovisual memoirs provide important perspectives for scholars and researchers. Since tape recorders became common in the 1950s, oral history projects of many kinds have proliferated, ranging from the “man-on-the-street” type of interview to formal presidential archives. Oral history projects are often centered on a theme, such as Yale’s Oral History American Music project, or Yale’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony.

Three issues of Russian periodical Zritel’
Zritel’, g. 1 no. 11-13, published in Saint Petersburg, Russia, 1905. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Serials: Newspapers, Journals and Magazines

A serial is a publication, such as a magazine, newspaper, or scholarly journal, that is published in ongoing installments. Like books, serials can function both as primary sources and secondary sources depending on how one approaches them. Age is an important factor in determining whether a serial publication is most useful as a primary or a secondary source.

For instance, an article on slavery in a recent issue of the Journal of Southern History should be read as a secondary source, as a scholar’s attempt to interpret primary source materials such as ledgers, diaries, or government documents in order to write an account of the past. An article on slavery published in the Journal of Southern History in 1935, however, can be read not only as a secondary source on slavery but also—and perhaps more appropriately—as a primary source that reveals how scholars in the 1930s interpreted slavery.

Early sound recording formats
Combination of flat disks and cylinders spanning the late-19th to the mid-20th century. Yale Collection of Historical Sound Recordings.

Sound Recordings

Sound recordings include not only music but also the spoken word—poetry, plays, conversations, speeches, and news broadcasts. Recordings capture historical performances, discussions, and presentations providing direct testimony from the past. Listening to a recording provides the opportunity to understand not only what is being conveyed but also how it is being conveyed, giving access to tone, manner, and style.

"The Crimson Skull" movie poster
Norman Film Manufacturing Company. The Crimson Skull. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Visual Materials

The term “visual material” refers to any primary source in which images, sometimes in conjunction with words or sound, are used to convey meaning. Some common and useful types of visual materials include:

  • Paintings, drawings, sculpture, and architectural drawings and plans
  • Prints such as woodcuts, engravings, etchings, and lithographs
  • Graphic arts, including posters, trade cards, ephemera, and computer generated graphics
  • Photographs
  • Film and video

Any of these materials can provide valuable information to a researcher. Factual information can often be extracted from visual materials, while their subjective nature provides insight into how people see themselves and the world in which they exist.