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History of Human Rights: Primary Sources & Web Sites

Identifying Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary sources Wordle image



Primary sources are generally created by a participant in, or direct observer of, an event. They are usually first-person sources, and they reflect the observer’s or participant’s point of view. Examples are photographs, books or articles published during a time under study, recorded or transcribed interviews, government documents, films, letters, diaries, works of art, and published reports of experiments conducted by scientists or social scientists. Primary sources do not have to be used in their original form, however. They may be reproduced electronically, printed or published later and still be considered primary sources.

Secondary sources include interpretation or analysis of events by an author who was not present. This is often done by studying primary sources. Secondary sources are a step removed from an event or work of art or time period. Examples include books and articles, documentary films, reference books, and textbooks, and these may be printed, on microfilm, on DVD, or digital.

In different fields, typical examples of primary and secondary sources can vary, but in history a primary source might be a handwritten letter held by a library’s special collections department or the text of the same letter printed in its entirety in a published book. Or it could be a contemporary newspaper article reporting on an event. A secondary source could be an article or book that uses that letter or newspaper article as one source in which something about the life of a person or an event can be drawn.

Both primary and secondary sources are important, and either or both types may be appropriate for historical research.

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Digital collections including primary sources

American Memory from the Library of Congress is a digital record of American history. 

The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy from Yale Law School includes Project Diana: Human Rights Cases.

Center for Jewish History Digital Collections features a variety of digital objects, including rare books, children’s books, personal letters, official decrees, maps, memoirs, posters, photographs, scrapbooks, oral histories, finding aids, dissertations, and more, documenting the Jewish experience.

Civil Rights Digital Library includes primary sources and other materials from libraries, archives, museums, public broadcasters, and others on a national scale. The CRDL features a collection of unedited news film from the WSB (Atlanta) and WALB (Albany, Ga.) television archives held by the Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection at the University of Georgia Libraries.

Eurodocs provides links to European primary historical documents that are transcribed, reproduced in facsimile, or translated. In addition you will find video or sound files, maps, photographs or other imagery, databases, and other documentation.

EUROPA is the official website of the European Union. Find EU treaties, legislation, case-law, how EU law is made and applied. Find official documents, publications, statistics, open data and more resources.

Labordoc from the International Labour Organization, covers all aspects of work and sustainable livelihoods and the work-related aspects of economic and social development, human rights and technological change.

Truth Commission Digital Collection from the United States Institute of Peace contains profiles of truth commissions and substantive bodies of inquiry from nations worldwide, with links to the official legislative texts establishing such commissions, and each commission's final reports and findings.

United Nations Human Rights website includes documentation by country and by issue. Use the Universal Human Rights Index to search the database.

The University of Minnesota Human Rights Library houses one of the largest collections of more than sixty thousand core human rights documents, including several hundred human rights treaties and other primary international human rights instruments. The site also provides access to more than four thousands links and a unique search device for multiple human rights sites.


Google Books for primary sources

Google Books is a great resource for finding primary source material from books in the public domain; that is, no longer under copyright protection. Enter a search and at the results screen select Search Tools, and then select Any Time to limit results by century, or to create a custom date parameter.

Hathi Trust Digital Library

HathiTrust Digital Library offers a collection of millions of titles digitized from libraries around the world. Advanced and Full Text search options are particularly useful for finding primary sources.