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What’s a “primary source”?

Primary sources provide firsthand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic or question under investigation. They are usually created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include artwork, autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later.

Why do I have to search so many places?

We get it, there’s a lot. While Yale is working towards creating a single search platform, primary sources can come from some of Yale’s oldest collections and the way we set up databases for searching in the past sometimes can’t be integrated into Quicksearch, Orbis, or Archives at Yale. You may want to try some of the tips outlined on the Search Strategies page.

I found a primary source, but it’s appearing multiple times in the search and in different formats. How do I tell which is the real one?

A single primary source may be found in a variety of formats. For example, the original of a handwritten letter by George Washington might be available to researchers at the Library of Congress, but a copy of that letter might be available elsewhere as microfilm, in a published collection of documents, or in electronic form online. This can be really helpful, especially when travel to a reading room isn’t possible!

Can’t I just use Google?

Yes! Google is often a helpful tool for finding online exhibits from libraries, archives, and museums, as well as a resource for locating digitized or born-digital books, maps, government documents, and more. Just keep in mind that Google searches differently than Yale’s own search platforms, and can search some library catalogs better than others. You can learn more about using Google in this libguide.

What’s a finding aid?

Finding aids contain detailed information about a specific collection of records within an archive. Finding aids often consist of an inventory and description of historical context, the materials, their source, and their structure. Finding aids can vary widely but they often describe collections at differing levels of detail, which means researchers must request boxes or folders and then examine individual items to find what they need. Archives at Yale contains finding aids from 10 libraries and repositories at Yale. See an example of a finding aid here.

How do I actually request and use primary sources?

For items that can be checked out (e.g. an autobiography at Bass Library), it’s as simple as grabbing it from the shelf or requesting it from the Library Shelving Facility (LSF). For other primary sources, such as those in the library’s special collections, you begin by clicking the “Request” or “Request for Use” link from the record of the item in Archives at Yale, Quicksearch, or Orbis. That link will send you to the system the libraries use for their special collections (Aeon) and you’ll log in with your NetID and password - non-Yale users will need to create an account using a valid email address. First-time users will need to agree to terms and conditions. Once logged in you’ll fill out the request form and select a date for use. For most of the items in library special collections, you’ll receive an automated email once the material has arrived from LSF and is ready for your use. However, if the item you’re interested in does not need to be delivered from off-site, it may not be paged by the staff until you arrive at the reading room. You can tell the difference by whether or not Aeon will let you place a request for that same day - if you can, then the item is onsite, if not, it has to come from LSF and you’ll need to wait for an email. When you arrive to use the item(s), staff will guide you through their policies and procedures regarding the use of their materials. For objects in the museums and galleries, your best bet is to look at their sites on viewing and using materials. To learn about accessing art and museum objects, click here to find out more about Yale’s museum collections: Yale University Art Gallery,   Yale Center for British Art, and Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

What’s a subject guide?

At Yale and many other institutions, subject specialists create guides that highlight resources relevant to particular disciplines, topics, time periods, or geographic regions.

Yale’s subject guides include information about primary source collections at Yale and elsewhere.

Born-digital? Digitized? What’s the difference?

Born-digital materials start out in a digital form, like CDs or a website. Digitized materials are those that have been photographed or scanned to create a digital copy, like a PDF of a letter from an archive or a picture of a painting from a museum.

I need sources right now! Help!

One of the quirks of doing primary source research is that reading rooms, galleries, and museums are usually only open during normal business hours, and the vast majority of Yale’s collections are stored either at the Library Shelving Facility or at West Campus.

If you’re in a time crunch, the options are to search the digital collections or the libraries’ subscriptions to primary source databases. Begin your seach with Quicksearch, including the databases portal, and check Yale’s Digital Collections for materials you can access from anywhere. You may want to try some of the tips outlined on the Search Strategies page or consulting with your Personal Librarian or a Subject Specialist.