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Biographical Perspectives: He/She Says

Firsthand or autobiographical sources provide a glimpse into the personality and point of view of the biographical figure. Obviously, these accounts are subject to the biases and philosophies held by the individual, as well as his or her self-image. Following are some resources that will help you in locating these important primary snapshots.  Look for the following types of resources in examining how individuals viewed themselves.

Portraits

Portraits generally show an individual "at their best."  Subjects dress and pose in a manner that conveys who they believe they are.

Quotes

Well known quotes by an individual can offer insight in to how an individual approached given concepts.  Check out quote collections on and off line.

Autobiographies

Biographies written by the individual themselves or in partnership with a ghost writer (located by the call number 921/subject's last name) offer insight into how the individual wished to be perceived.

Personal Writings

Digitized collections of the personal papers/correspondence of an individual are often maintained by libraries and museums that have been connected to that person by location or profession. The directory of primary source repositories around the world will help you locate these smaller primary source respositories, some of which are digitized and available free to the public. You can also find state depositories through the Council of State Archivists. Locate smaller or more specilized collections by using a search engine to locate "archives" along with related keywords.  Many reference and non-fiction resource in the library also contain primary source documents.  Search the catalog.

In the Library

The MGHS Library has a large number of print and ebook titles that include or feature primary source documents. 

  • Use the MGHS Library Catalog to locate resources related to the time period your individual was alive.
  • Examine the source:
    • Is this source a collection of primary source documents?
      • Use the Table of Contents to locate the appropriate time or geographic period.
      • Search for you individual in the index to locate primary source documents related to the individual you are researching.
      • Don't forget to look for historical analysis contained within these sources.  They can be very useful in understanding archaic language or circumstances surrounding the production of the primary source.
    • Is this source a general historical reference work or secondary analysis?
      • In the table of contents, look for a section dedicated to primary source documents.
      • Search the index (or use online search tools within ebooks).  Use keywords such as "letters," "correspondence," or "diary" to locate excerpts from significant primary sources.

Primary Sources for World History

The Avalon Project
Documents in law, history, and diplomacy from Yale University.

Cambridge Digital Library
This is a vast collection of books, maps, manuscripts and journals digitized by the Cambridge University Library.

Google Books
Google books offers a unique opportunity to find older, out-of-print books. You may find works by the individual, themselves, providing insight into their personal point-of-view.

Epistolae: Medieval Women's Letters
A unique "collecting of letters to and from women dating from the 4th to 13th century AD."  Curated and translated by Dr. Joan Ferrante of Columbia University.

Europeana
Developed by a partnership of some of Europe's leading galleries, libraries, and museums, this collection featues books, manuscripts, diaries, maps, and much more!

Eyewitness to History
A curated index to online primary source documents, sorted by historical period.

Mapping the Republic of Letters
A collection of case studies carried out around correspondence, publication, and travel experiences across geographic areas and time periods.  This project is being carried out by scholars at Stanford University and includes both rich primary source materials and scholarly analysis.

The World Digital Library
An ambitious cooperative project produced by the U.S. Library Congress, UNESCO, and libraries, archives and museums world-wide, this collection allows you to search by place, time period, topic, type of resource (book, journal, manuscript, etc.), language or institution.

Primary Sources for American History

Access Newspaper ARCHIVE
This databases features select content from newspapers across the country on important events.  Use it to compare regional reactions and political bias to events.

American Memory Collection
Primary source collections from the U.S. Library of Congress

Chronicling America
A project of the Library of Congress, this collection provides select access to newspapers dating from 1836-1922.

Making of America
A digital library of primary sources in American social history from the 19th century. The collection currently contains approximately 10,000 books and 50,000 journal articles.

The National Archives
The official archives of American documents produced by governmental agencies.

The Smithsonian Library
Access to select documents and ephemera housed as part of the collections at the Smithsonian Institute.

Is a Quote a Primary Source?

Is a quote a primary source?  Technically, yes.  However, consider this:

  • quoting an individual without examining the original source often leads to that person's words being taken "taken out of context."  Contextual clues give us a better understanding of what a person meant to say.
  • quotes can get "lost in translation."  Particularly when an individual is speaking a foreign or archaic language that includes terms or ideas that are not directly translatable. 
  • quotes can be changed over time.  Ever play "telephone" with a group of people.  The more often a quote has been used and reinterpreted to fit a variety of contexts, the more likely the quote, itself, will transform.
  • quotes can be mis-attributed.  When someone says something profound, it is often used by others to make points.  Over time, it can become difficult to determine the original author of a quote, particularly if it has been paraphrase.

Go ahead and look up quotes.  But be sure, you know the source!

The Quotations Page
Allows you to search several quote sources at once. Be sure to search by both common names and aliases.

Quotes at Dictionary.com
Comprehensive quote search engine. Search by name.

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