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Sources of Evidence

Historians use both primary and secondary sources of information as evidence in developing arguments and building theories.

Let's explore how primary and secondary sources can be used in the study of library history.

Primary Sources

German prisoners of war - Canada Dept of National Defence Library and Archives of Canada PA-213869Without traveling back in time, it's impossible to experience an historical event live.

Library historians must use indirect forms of evidence that tell the story. The quality of this evidence must be carefully evaluated.

A primary source is a piece of information created from direct experience and often used for understanding history. These sources include actual records and artifacts that have survived from the past such as diaries, letters, photographs, articles of clothing, or coins (1).

For instance, the photo (above left) shows German prisoners-of-war using the internment camp library, Camp 42 in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada on 18, June 1944. The photo can be found at the Canada Dept of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-213869.

Primary sources are created by people who witnessed or participated in an event and recorded it in some way. They also include any informational item created in the past such as a newspaper advertisement from the 1940s, political cartoon from the 1920s, or recipe from the 1800s.

Many library studies use a variety of primary sources in the their research. For instance, Kevane (2014) used library surveys and other sources to document changes in public libraries between 1870 and 1930.

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Read Kevane, Michael & Sundstrom, William A. (2014). The development of public libraries in the United States, 1870-1930: a quantitative assessment. Information & Culture: A Journal of History, 49(2), 117-144.

Digital Reproductions

Today, many people are using digital reproductions of original materials. Reading a scanned copy of the marriage certificate yields similar information to the original. On the other hand, it doesn't allow you to see the reverse side of the sheet unless that side is scanned also. In other words, your exploration may be incomplete when examining online archives. Some people also miss the smell and touch of an original item.

A digital reproduction is an electronic version of an artifact such as a diary, letter, newspaper clipping, object, or original photograph. Digital reproductions allow the original to be stored, protected, and preserved, while making the resource widely available for study.

Learn more at Escrapbooking: Digital Reproduction.

Digital Transcriptions

When reading a letter, journal, or historical document, it's often easier to read a transcription rather than the original written version. However keep in mind that it's possible to lose some of the writer's intent when you don't see the original hand writing, emphasis, or formatting.

Many people like to use a combination of digital reproductions and transcriptions when examining primary sources.

Transcription is the conversion of one form of language into another such as hand written letters into typewritten documents. It can also be process of matching the sounds of human speech to a text format.

Many historical primary resources are transcribed into a digital form to make them easier to access and search. Traditionally, text transcriptions were created by working with the original documents. However with increasing concerns about preservation, many transcribers are now working from digital reproductions of the originals to reduce the impact on the original.

Learn more at Escrapbooking: Digital Transcription.

Notice how digital reproductions and transcriptions are incorporated into the article by Intrator below. Examine how poetry excerpts, orders, and quotes are used. Consider the value of weaving historical documents directly into library histories.

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Read Intrator, Miriam (Winter 2007). "People were literally starving for any kind of reading": The Theresienstadt Ghetto Central Library, 1942-1945. Library Trends, 55(3), 513-522.

Primary Source Analysis

The key to using primary source documents is careful analysis and evaluation. Use the worksheets provided by the Library of Congress to analyze primary source documents.

LOC Carnegie PDCartoon Worksheet from NARA

Examine the political cartoon above using the NARA worksheet. What does the artist try to convey about Andrew Carnegie and libraries?

Caption - You have qualified thoroughly as modern philanthropists, now why not do some good?

Library of Congress Description - "Illustration shows Puck tugging at the coat-tails of Andrew Carnegie, as he and John D. Rockefeller pile money bags around the base of a statue labeled "Fame", which they seek by endowing libraries and universities; Puck is suggesting that they could do more good for society by endowing places like a 'Home for Consumptives'."

When examining a primary resource, create a list of the facts that you identify. Then, be sure you verify these facts using at least two other sources. Keep in mind that the best sources are closest to the actual event. For example, examine the materials related to the death and burial of Melvil Dewey. This document would be more reliable than a newspaper account of his death.

Go to the Carey Hand Funeral Home Special Collection.
Scroll to the bottom of the page to see the digital reproductions of the primary source materials of Carey Hand Funeral Home including information recorded by the undertaker relating to the death and burial of the deceased individual and the Carey Hand Funeral Home Register detailing death, burial, and payment information for services provided in 1931.

Read a transcript of the New York Times obituary.

Dewey Obit New York Times

It's important to examine primary sources carefully because they may be copies, reproductions, or duplicates rather than original materials. The key is to determine whether the item is authentic and accurate. Richard Krzys (2003) suggests that records must be judged in terms of the authenticity of their physical entity, the genuineness of the authorship, and the accuracy of the text. Scientific techniques can be applied to ensure authenticity.

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Read Making Sense of Evidence to learn more about how to effectively use primary sources.

Primary Source Interpretation

Primary resources provide interesting insights into people and places. The key to effective use of primary resources is careful observation and interpretation. Many times a primary source only provides part of a larger story. By examining and comparing the information from many resources, it's possible to gain a better understanding of the people, places, and technologies of the past.

Examine the many types of primary source materials related to the Boston Public Library at Library History Buff. How can these varied resources help you understand the history of this public library?

Exploring primary documents is like a treasure hunt. You often have to visit many places to collect materials including the websites, libraries, museums, government agencies, and historical societies. You may create your own documents by interviewing family members. Keep in mind that primary sources also include audio tapes, videos, and artifacts.

Interpretation is the process of explaining or conceptualizing. It involves helping people understand context and meaning of an item such as a letter, painting, diary, or artifact.

Interpretations means many things depending on the context. The National Park Service defines it as "the process of helping each park visitor find an opportunity to personally connect with a place."

Interpretation is a hotly debated area. Interpreters must be able to understand multiple perspectives and contexts. They must be aware of their potential bias and make clear distinctions between objective and subjective observations. Inferences are made and reasoned explanation of events and issues in past and present are then shared. Concern arises regarding possible bias that can be reflected in the commentary.

Learn more at Interpretation of Primary Sources.

Types of Primary Sources

Richard Krzys identified six types of primary sources including artifacts, inscriptions, official public records, official private records, newspapers, and personal sources.


Card Catalog CC-A-SA Jennifer YanaAn artifact is an object made by humans.

Much of what we know about libraries comes from the cuneiform, scrolls, books, benches, chains, paintings, and other materials left behind by people from earlier times.

The card catalog on the left would be a library artifact.


An inscription is writing on an artifact. This includes a plaque on a building, text on a coin, and a dedication of a book. An epigraph is any kind of text from a single character to a lengthy document recorded on stone, metal, paper, or other surfaces. Techniques such as engraving, embossing, or painting can be used to create the the inscription. Texts inscribed on stone are generally intended for public viewing.

Inscriptions can be formal like a plaque on a bookshelf or informal like graffiti on a subway wall. Krzys (2003, 1627-1628) notes that inscriptions can provide a bridge between an artifact and graphic records. "Although the commemorative nature of inscriptions rend to minimize their subjective element and enhance their reliability as evidence, inscriptions may be falsified as can any other type of historical source."

The image below shows an inscription on the exterior of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.

Bodleian Library Oxford CC-A Arnaud Malon

Official Public Records

For the greatest reliability, seek out public records such as treaties, statutes, court records, proceedings, meeting minutes, and government reports.

Most public officials compiling records are concerned about accuracy and authenticity. However, errors happen on occasion, so it's important to confirm any findings. In addition, the agency must be considered within the context of the large government and their perspectives. For instance, many Chinese dynasties sought to eliminate records of that didn't agree with their ideology.

The author of the article below investigated library annual reports. These are official library records.

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Read Lear, Bernadette A. (2006). 'Tis better to brief than tedious?' The evolution of the American Public Library Annual Report, 1876-2004. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 41(4), 462-486.

Official Private Records

From commercial and industrial documents to personal scrapbooks, quality information can be found in private records. However consideration must be made of how selections are made. Many libraries maintain scrapbooks of their history.

A scrapbook dating from 1923-1930 contains clippings selected by the librarian. The contents of the collection represents a combination of private and public records along with newspaper clippings. The Shelton Library System has posted library scrapbooks online.


Biscoe Obit New York TimesThe newspaper can be a reliable source of information. However, it's important to consider the purpose of the article. Legal notices, market reports, and other types of articles strive to provide accurate information, while editorials and opinion pieces may reflect bias. Feature articles may only include information that was available to the news reporter at the time of the event. These articles must be viewed in the context of the time they were written. Newspapers may be affiliated with particular political or social structures that reflect particular perspectives.

On the right is a New York Times article about the death of Walter S. Biscoe the Former Senior Librarian of State Library of Albany ated December 24, 1933.

Personal Sources

Letters, e-mail, diaries, journals, travelogs, memoirs, and reminiscences fall under the category of personal sources. Readers must remember that these materials are often written without the thought of publication.

Travelogues are a rich source of information about libraries of the past. For instance, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq kept a travelogue as well as writing articles for newspapers. This primary source information can provide useful insights into the library world of the past.

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Read Roper, Geoffrey (1998). Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq and the libraries of Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Libraries & Culture, 33(3), 234-248.

Examine the article by Kimball below. Notice the variety of resources used including archival materials, annual reports, journal articles, and books. Consider how the primary and secondary sources contribute to the article.

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Read Kimball, Melanie A. (Winter 2007). From refuge to risk: public libraries and children in World War I. Library Trends, 55(3), 454-463.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are accounts of the past created by people writing about events sometime after they happened. These descriptions come from combining accounts and ideas from several primary resources. A reduction in reliability comes from errors inherent when information is filtered through multiple writers.

Richard Krzys (2003) suggestions that secondary resources are useful for five reasons (2003, 1628):

"general background information special types of information, particularly in areas when the historian's own knowledge is inadequate information not otherwise available to the researcher
assurance that the work in progress have not already been done by others profit from the mistakes of predessors."

When using analyzing secondary sources, it's important to consider both the author of the work as well as the notes and references provided.

Examine the article by Greenberg below. Notice how notes are used to provide insights and background. Also, note the use references.

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Read Greenberg, Gerald S. (Winter 2007). The Paris Commune of 1871 and the Biblioteque Nationale. Library Trends, 55(3), 442-453.

Examine the article by Zheng below. Notice how the author synthesizes information from a variety of different studies.

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Read Zheng, Yunyan (2014). Library history: Seeking the origin of the Chinese library from its tradition. Libri, 64(3), 263-276.

Tools for Library Historians

Before delving into an inquiry it's useful to explore works that already exist in the field. Consider the following journals:

Formats of Visual Sources

Various formats can be used to convey knowledge. Over the past couple centuries, many new methods have been invented for recording information.

The Jefferson County Missouri library maintains a collection of photographs and videos that that reflect current and past activities of the library. Go to their online scrapbook.


Cartoons provide interesting insights into social aspects of a time period. They reflect what people were talking and thinking about in social situations.


FSA Camp LOC fsa.8c28004Photos are a visual way to record information.

Examine the Library of Congress photograph labeled "Batavia, New York. Elba FSA (Farm Security Administration) farm labor camp. Recreational director signing out books from the camp library to newly-arrived high school girls from Richwood, West Virginia, September 1942".

What information can be gathered from the title? What evidence can be found in the photograph?


Posters are another visual way to explore information from the past.

Examine war-era posters such as The Camp Library is Yours.

Camp Poster LOC cph.3g1002 Library of Congress


Postcards have multiple uses in historical investigations. They often contain photographs that convey historical information. However they also often contain personal or business coorespondence. In addition, they may have interesting stamps, cancellation stamps, addresses, and other useful information.

When digitizing postcards for later use, be sure to scan both sides of the card. Explore examples of Library Postcards at Wikimedia Commons.

Public Library Auburn Maine Wikimedia Commons PD

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Read Lear, Bernadette A. (2008). Wishing they were there: old postcards and library history. Libraries & the Cultural Record, 43(1), 77-100.



Bloch, Marc (1954, 1992). The Historian's Craft. Manchester University Press. Preview Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=YZdCcT_1Z8YC

Garraghan, Gilbert J. (1946). A Guide to Historical Method. Fordham University Press.

Gottschalk, Louis. A Primer for Historical Method.

Krzyr, Richard (2003). Library historiography. In Miriam A. Drake (ed), Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. Second Edition, CRC Press, 1621-1641. Available: http://books.google.com/books?id=Sqr-_3FBYiYC&pg=PA1621

Olle, James G. (1971). Library History: An Examination Guidebook. Second Edition. Archon Books & Clive Bingley.


  1. Idea adapted from Historiography by New World Encyclopedia - http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Historiography
  2. Annette Lamb's escrapbooking website.

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