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English Language & Literature

Resources for conducting literary research on English & American Literatures.

Primary Sources -- United Kingdom & Commonwealth of Nations

Why Use Primary Sources?

brown paper and black penPrimary sources are firsthand accounts of an event -- or original records created during that time period -- which do not contain any outside interpretation. Primary sources can include letters, diaries, or interviews; historical news reportage; original works of fiction, art, or music; testimony or speeches.

When and Why You Should Use Primary Sources:

  • You need a better understanding of an event, produced by someone who experienced or witnessed the event in question
  • You need to offer a view of history through the lens of unique, often profoundly personal, documents or objects
  • You need examples of different points of view from individuals whose stories might not have been told

Remember: Primary sources are the building blocks of historical research and should provide the foundation of your argument and interpretation, whereas secondary sources should inform and supplement the primary sources. Use your primary sources as evidence for answering your research question and write based on those sources, rather than “plugging them in” after the fact to bolster your argument. In short, primary sources should drive the paper, not the other way around.

Primary Source Discovery Databases

These databases attempt to bring together all of their respective primary source collections into one databases for greater discoverability.

Find Manuscripts (Prose, Poetry, & Drama)

Medieval manuscript

Manuscripts are useful because they can provide insight into the production of works as well as document the lives of significant literary figures.

The term "manuscript" literally means "written by hand" and encompasses a broad array of documents and records of numerous formats and types, including letters & correspondence, diaries & journals, memoirs & autobiographies, papers relating to published and unpublished literary works, as well as handwritten notes.

Find Ephemera & More

Collection of ephemeraEphemera is useful because its sheer variety (posters, maps, advertisements, trade cards, programs, etc.) provides a glimpse into a historical period's cultural, economic, and social customs & traditions. 

Still not sure what constitutes ephemera?  Take a look at these examples...

Find Newspapers

Front page of The Irish TimesNewspapers are useful because they can contain original reviews of works as well as accounts of what was occurring when the work was published. Ultimately, newspapers are invaluable for their relative immediacy, recording history as it happened. 

Find Periodicals

Multiple periodicalsPeriodicals are useful because they can contain original reviews of works as well as earlier, serialized versions of works.