Introduction to African History: History 311
Primary Source Assignment

1. Understand the research process, and the time it takes to do your work:

Start early! Depending on your topic or what you would like to research, the best collections of African primary sources may very well be at other libraries. While Interlibrary Loan makes it simple to borrow items from other libraries, you need to factor in the time it may take for your item to arrive, and the time you need to complete your assignment.

Time, topic & format: Searching a remote catalog such as the Africana Database at the University of Michigan, the Schomburg Center's catalog on Black Studies on Disc, or WorldCat, will certainly give you a good idea of the kinds of primary sources that exist on your topic. The next step will be to search the ISU Library Catalog to check whether that item is available here. If not, Interlibrary Loan will be your next step. If you search the CRL databases, these items can also be requested via Interlibrary Loan, but remember too that the majority of these items will be on microfilm. That means that besides using Interlibrary Loan, you will need to come to the Microforms Center in the Library to use a microfilm reader. Many historians do their research in this way, but the key for success is to understand this when you begin so you can plan ahead and use your time well. If you can't start your project early, for whatever reason, realize that your choice of materials and topics may be limited.

2. Finding a Primary Source on African history, 1700-1980:

Remember Barzun's words that primary sources are generally produced by "the first recorders of events." Keeping this in mind, consider the following:

(a) What events or topics interest you?

If you don't already have a general topic in mind, choose basic starting points to begin your research. Consult encyclopedias, historic dictionaries, or other background materials to get a clearer idea of the kind of topic you want to research. (Examples of good starting points are listed and linked on the class resource page.) Then, use basic finding tools, such as library catalogs & indexes, to identify possible primary sources on your topic. Use keyword searches to begin, adding words that describe different types of primary sources, such as:

personal narratives
travel and description

You could also browse or search through specific newspaper indexes by year, and find a topic that interests you. Indexes to the London Times or the New York Times date back to 1790 and 1851, respectively; the Microforms Center will have copies of the newspapers themselves on microfilm. So, depending on your interests, there are a number of paths you could take to find primary sources.

(b) Who are the "first recorders"?

It may also help to consider who might be among the "first recorders" for your topic. If you have a person or organization in mind, do an author search in library catalogs or subject-relevant indexes. Consider too that many early African primary sources and historical accounts that have been published and preserved may have been produced by observers or participants who were outsiders, or foreigners to the African cultures and events they described. Does this have an impact on what was recorded?

(c) What records may be left behind?

It also helps to think about what kind of records might be left behind. Generally, these can include written materials such as: diaries, letters, field notes, manuscripts, organization or corporate records, personal or travel narratives, newspaper articles, or other materials written or produced at the time of the event(s) being discussed or depicted. Primary sources can also include photographs, historic film, political posters or pamphlets, and physical objects or artifacts of all types. Written records are most likely to be available in library collections, either in manuscript form (in archives) or in published format, such as the collected and published letters of a colonial traveller. These can be published as books or reproduced on microfilm. Physical objects may occasionally be available on the Web as digitized images at specific libraries or archives, or reproduced in books and other publications.

(d) Library research vs. Web research:

It's a fact that many archives are putting some of their collections online, in the form of full-text and digitized images. But unless you already know where and what these collections are, and what individual archives have put online, you could spend hours searching the web using familiar search engines, and still not find any relevant primary sources (or secondary sources, for that matter).

In that same amount of time, you could easily search any number of specific library resources such as catalogs, indexes, databases, and authoritative subject-focused web pages and identify all the materials you need. (A good selection is listed and linked on the class web resource page.) You would even have time left over to request items via Interlibrary Loan, have time to pick up materials in the Library, and even do some serious microfilm reading in the Microforms Center. Something to think about!

3. Finding a Secondary Source:

The hard part is over! Once you've identified your primary source and had it approved by your professor, you'll need to find a secondary source, meaning, one that describes, analyzes, interprets, or reviews your primary source. Often, secondary sources are written years after the fact, and can thus take into consideration other events or otherwise place a primary source in historical context. Generally, secondary sources include the following:

books or monographs
scholarly journal articles or essays

You can easily locate secondary sources in library catalogs and scholarly indexes, such as Historical Abstracts. Again, use keyword searches to begin, and use words that describe elements of your specific topic. You can use the class web resource page to identify and search relevant catalogs and indexes.

4. Questions or complications?

If you have any questions about the assignment or its format, you should consult with your professor. If you have difficulties finding materials on your topic or using any of the resources mentioned here or on the class web resource page, feel free to contact the librarian for this class right away or to ask a librarian at the Reference Desk for assistance.

Iowa State University Library, Ames, IA 50011
Last updated: 17 February 2000.
Created: 11 February 2000.