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BIS 336: U.S. Mass Incarceration (Berger): Primary/Secondary Sources & Archives

Thinking about how we use sources

From marttj's photostream - Once you have a research question, there are various types of sources that you can use to get an answer. One dimension of analysis for sources is the format, considering whether a source is a journal article, newspaper article, photograph, etc. Another dimension of analysis is whether a source is primary or secondary. You may have learned in the past that primary sources have a particular format. It's a little more complicated than that, however! Whether a source is primary or secondary has to do with the position of the questioner in relation to the source.

Secondary sources

A secondary source, by contrast, is something written by someone else who asked the same question that you are asking, or a related question. One of the first things that I will do if I have a question is see whether someone else had the same question and tried to find the answer. So rather than plunge immediately into collections of recipes, I might see if someone has already written about the history of diet, cuisine, and domestic labor in the United States. Those would all be secondary sources. Think of secondary sources as co-investigators, friendly helpers. Even if you don’t agree with their answers, you can learn from their work.

Physical and digital archives

Archives (physical collections)

Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance Archives, ca. 1972-1994 - Duke University Libraries

Bloom (AC 1966) Alternative Press Collection, ca. 1967-1992 - Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Coalition to Stop Institutional Violence - Northeastern University Library Archives and Special Collections

Crime, prisons, and reform schools collection - Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History at Smith College Libraries

Guide to the Raul Salinas Papers, ca. 1950-1994 - Stanford University

Mario Cantú Papers, 1957-1998 - Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas Archival Resources

Digital Archives

Freedom Archives

Washington Prison History Project Archive - University of Washington Bothell Digital Collections

American Prison Writing Archive

Current Collections - Washington State Archives, Digital Archives - includes Washington State Corrections Department records

Vanderbilt Television News Archive

Primary sources and archives

A primary source is something you examine for clues about whatever you are investigating. Suppose my question is, "Did the mid-century spread of domestic refrigeration in the United States change diet and patterns of domestic work?" I might look up old recipes, lists of what grocery stores sold, letters, or even photographs of people eating. Those would all be primary sources: artifacts produced in connection with the thing I am studying.Recipe Book from Mary Ellen Pleasant Papers Folder 21 of Helen Holdredge Collection San Francisco History Center, found online
An archive is a collection of artifacts, and archival research involves collecting and assessing artifacts.  The word “artifact” really just means “made thing,” and we use that term to emphasize that anything that someone has made can be used as a primary or archival source, depending on what question you are asking. Artifacts are generally produced by individuals or groups directly involved in the event or topic under consideration. Artifacts in archives may include eyewitness accounts, diaries, letters, speeches, works of art, films, photographs, songs, cartoons, illustrations, advertisements, recordings, government documents ... this list could go on. Archives are often created and maintained by institutions, but may also be private.

Genealogical research is a good example of archival research using primary documents. Here, typically the research question is something like, "Who were my ancestors and what were they like?" And people use wills, baptismal records, immigration papers – documents of all kinds that show the traces of someone’s existence. Often these artifacts are collected in researchable archives. Archaeologists may dig up and collect household objects and use them to answer questions about how people lived in different places and times.