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AFROAMER/HISTORY 628: History of the Civil Rights Movement - Guide to Primary Sources (Fall 2022) : Welcome


Welcome to the library course guide for Hist 628: History of the Civil Rights Movement! This guide focuses on helping you find (mostly digital) primary sources relevant to your research needs.

The guide includes information about how to find primary source:

  • Books --> Memoirs, autobiographies and pamphlets
  • Articles --> Popular magazines, and newspapers
  • Archival material --> Unpublished letters & diaries, meeting minutes and other organizational records, photos, videos & posters

Note that often several kinds of sources are contained within the digital collections recommended throughout this guide. While the guide is divided by type of material, during your research you should make full use of all materials available on each platform.

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs or oral histories. They enable researchers to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period to help them understand and interpret the past. (See definition from the American Library Association's Reference & User Services Association's History Section.)

Some examples of types and formats for primary sources include:

  • Books such as personal narratives, memoirs, and autobiographies, collected works, and collections of documents (these may be edited and published after the historical event or time period)
  • Journal, magazine, and newspaper articles 
  • Government publications
  • Archival sources such as diaries, interviews, letters, photographs, video recordings, and other media

Secondary sources are any published or unpublished works that are a step removed from original sources, usually describing, summarizing, analyzing, evaluating, derived from, or based on primary sources. Some examples of secondary sources are: histories about a topic, works of criticism and interpretation, monographs, textbooks, biographies, dictionaries and encyclopedias, handbooks and manuals, bibliographies, and directories. (See definition from ABC-CLIO Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science.)

General Tips

  • Begin your research with reference and other secondary sources (books and articles) that give you background and a framework for interpreting primary sources.
  • Look for primary sources in the footnotes and bibliographies of secondary source books and articles.
  • Search catalogs for primary sources in libaries, special collections and archives.
  • Look for online primary sources. Many primary sources have been digitized and are available on the Web. Some are found in the subscription databases that UW-Madison Libraries provides access to, and others available freely on the internet without needing to go through the library.
  • Ask a librarian for guidance in finding and evaluating primary sources related to your topic. Depending on your topic and need, you may want to contact a subject specialist librarian.

Choosing Search Terms

Using keywords effectively is an important step in learning how to find sources.  Several tips for deciding which keywords to use are:

  • Focus on the main ideas in your research question.
    • For example in the research question, “How did women navigate sexism in the Civil Rights Movement?”, the main ideas are sexism and Civil Rights Movement.
    • Come up with different ways to express those main ideas. For sexism, you might use related words like feminism, sex discrimination, or gender roles. Different combinations of words will get you different results, so try a variety of searches.
    • Narrow your question to a manageable size. Instead of the entire Civil Rights Movement, look into particular organizations, people, or events. For example: SNCC, Septima Clark, or the Little Rock Nine.
  • Use vocabulary that is appropriate for the type of resource you are looking for – newspapers use more general vocabulary, but scholarly articles use more academic terms.


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Cynthia Bachhuber
Wisconsin Historical Society Library
816 State Street
Madison, WI 53714

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