Thomas J. Watson Library

The Libraries of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Finding Primary Sources – Guide

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Description: Original sources are the essential building blocks of scholarly research.  In this class we will take a look at several gateways – such as Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Intute, and Gallica – that either direct you to repositories of primary materials, or provide access to the full text of primary sources themselves.  Both English and selected foreign-language resources will be covered.

Instructor: Viktoria Paranyuk

Class Level: Intermediate – I have some familiarity with the Watson Library and am looking for resources beyond the basics.

What is a primary source? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “primary” in the context of academic research or writing designates “source material contemporary with the period or thing studied…an original document, source, or text rather than one of criticism, discussion, or summary.”   The types of original sources we will consider in this class are:

  • newspapers
  • personal papers
  • literary works
  • manuscripts
  • sound and video

We will arrive at these materials via:

  • Watsonline (The Library catalog)
  • Subscription databases (available onsite to everyone and remotely to museum staff only)
    • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
    • American Periodical Series Online
  • Free Web Resources

WATSONLINE, together with the Watson Library website, is an excellent gateway to a wealth of resources, some of which include original materials. To find an electronic resource, enter the full or first words of a title in the Site Search box or in WATSONLINE under title.

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers is a website providing access to information about historic newspapers and select digitized newspaper pages, and is produced by the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP). NDNP, a partnership between the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Library of Congress (LC), is a long-term effort to develop an Internet-based, searchable database of U.S. newspapers with descriptive information and select digitization of historic pages.

As of summer 2009, the period covered is from 1880 to 1910. Eventually, over approximately the next 20 years, it will extend back to 1822 and forward to 1922.

Currently, newspapers from the following states have been digitized: California, District of Columbia, Florida, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Texas, Utah, and Virginia.

Ultimately, all the states and US territories will be included. The database is fully functional for the parameters I just mentioned.

Once you’ve selected a newspaper under See All Available Newspapers – I chose Los Angeles Herald – you may browse its pages by calendar or by front pages. You may also search newspaper pages by going to Search Newspaper Pages and entering search terms in the appropriate search fields. Note that I selected “all states” and “all newspapers,” but you certainly may focus your query by the available criteria if you wish to do so.

American Periodicals Series Online, which you may access again through WATSONLINE, is a collection of digitized page images from American magazines and journals that originated between 1741, when Andrew Bradford’s American Magazine and Benjamin Franklin’s General Magazine were launched, and 1900. APS features over 1,500 periodicals, with titles ranging from America’s first scientific journal, Medical Repository, to popular magazines like Vanity Fair and Ladies’ Home Journal. It contains periodicals published during the Civil War and Reconstruction periods. A few periodicals expand the range to 1941.

To browse included publications, click on the Publications tab and then on the link Show all publications.

To perform a search, select either the basic or advanced mode, type in your search words, and if you wish, limit by publication title, author, document type, year rage, etc. Let’s look for pieces about Eastman Johnson’s famous painting “The Old Kentucky Home.”  I know that he had painted it in 1859 and he died in 1902, hence, my date range. Note that I elected to do my search in the basic mode. I got 7 results, all relevant. In the result pool, the search terms are conveniently highlighted. You can browse through the results by hitting the forward arrows. A tool bar with all the familiar tools, such as save, zoom, etc. is at your disposal.

Gallica is a digital library of the National Library of France. It contains more than 800,000 documents from the National Library as well as more than 4,000 documents from partner institutions. These documents represent printed materials, maps, photographs, manuscripts, sound files, etc.

One of the types of material you can access through Gallica is French daily press from the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. By clicking on the discover link, you’ll arrive at a page that explains the scope of the project and what newspapers are included. The alphabetical list of the newspapers tells you which titles have either already been digitized or are in the process of being digitized. You can enter a newspaper by simply clicking on the title.

I selected Le Figaro. You can search the newspaper directly from this page or you can browse it by calendar. I entered the 2 September 1939 issue.

At the top, there are several display possibilities. Mosaic gives you all the digitized pages in that issue; text is simply a transcribed regular text; The default mode is “normal”; listening mode is a voice reading the content of the paper, beginning with the title, issue number, year, the weather, etc.; and zoom allows you to zoom in on the sections of a page.

To the right of the display panel (or sometimes beneath it) are the familiar icons representing print, save, and email functions. From this page you can search this issue of Le Figaro or the entire run of the paper.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is an illustrated collection of almost 57,000 specially written biographies of the men and women from around the world who shaped all aspects of Britain’s past. It is a subscription resource.

From the homepage, you can search, browse, or explore themes by going to the tabs at the top of the page.

Let’s search for John Constable from the homepage. After selecting the correct John Constable, landscape painter and draughtsman, we are presented with a detailed biography of the artist. For clarity and convenience, at left, the biographical narrative is subdivided into more important events in the artist’s life and career. What is of interest to us for the purpose of this class are references and archival sources below the biography.

The references link provides you with a bibliography, underneath which there is a list of archival documents.

You may also choose to go to Other Online Resources and click on National Register of Archives, which will take you – via the UK’s National Archives – to essentially the same list as the archival sources in the reference section but with more details: time period, type of material, its location and record number. From here, you are invited to contact the appropriate repository and follow its guidelines for obtaining original materials.

Perseus Digital Library has a particular focus on the Greco-Roman world and on classical Greek and Latin, but their larger mission is to make the full record of humanity – linguistic sources, physical artifacts, historical spaces – as intellectually accessible as possible to every human being, regardless of linguistic or cultural background.
Let’s go to Collections and Texts. All texts, it should be noted, are transcribed and fully searchable. Collections that are of interest to us on this list are the following:

  • Greek and Roman materials
  • Renaissance materials (sources in early modern English literature)
  • 19th-century American sources (including Richmond Times Dispatch covering the Civil War years, 1861-65)
  • Arabic language documents (primarily different editions of the Quran)
  • Germanic materials
  • Non-literary papyri from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods

Let’s go to the Greek & Roman collection and select Aristophanes. Note that some works are in the original language and some are translations.

Let’s click on Lysistrata (in Greek), one of Aristophanes’ celebrated comedies. These are the first verses of the comedy. The Perseus interface is cluttered, but these are the basic elements you need to know: the main text is in the middle, against the white background; a text navigation box allows you to jump to another part of the work or a different work altogether; you can bring up a dictionary by clicking on a word in the text. References at right give any cross-references to this passage made in other works that are in the Perseus Digital Library.
Because of its busy interface, Perseus Digital Library may seem somewhat overwhelming, but it is worth exploring for the wealth of sources it contains.

I’d like to return to Gallica to show you another type of primary material: manuscript.

The Gallica collection of manuscripts is extensive. It comprises a variety of material in different languages, including French literary works – Sentimental Education by Flaubert and Remembrance of Things Past by Proust, for example; The Tale of Genji and other Japanese works, including those that contain wood engravings by Hokusai; manuscripts from the Korean Royal Archives; a number of medieval illuminated manuscripts, and a selection of works representative of the rich collection of western and eastern manuscripts kept in the French National Library.

To perform a search for digitized manuscripts in Gallica, I recommend you use Advanced Search. Enter any terms you wish in the five fields available (I just wrote Proust in the author field); select the language, manuscript in document type, provenance BnF, and execute a search. If you don’t check off BnF, you will also have access to the manuscripts from partner libraries, such as InterUniversity Library of Medicine, etc.

If you copy my search, you’ll arrive at one of the notebooks of Proust’s Rememberance of Things Past. To investigate a manuscript more closely, you have essentially the same tools at your disposal as when looking at the daily press, zoom being an indispensable one.

Intute is a free online service providing access to the very best of Web resources for education and research. Intute is a consortium of several universities and institutions in the UK, among which are Higher Education Academy, Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies, and University of Oxford. All material is selected and evaluated by a network of subject specialists. Primary subject classifications are Science and Technology, Social Sciences, Health and Life Sciences, and Arts and Humanities.

It is featured in this class because it is another gateway to original materials. I am going to show a small portion of the database, specifically how to get to primary sources in the Arts and Humanities section.

Let’s click on Art and Humanities. Once there, you can do several things. You can right away begin to search; you can take a look at the newly added sources in arts and humanities; or, as we are going to do, you can browse by category – visual arts in this case.

Once in the visual arts category, let’s browse by resource type, one of which is primary source. As of June 23, there were 167 records under primary source. Keep checking back, as the database is rapidly expanding.

Intute is a valuable research tool, and I just showed you a very small portion of it. I recommend that you explore it on your own. Some of the documents that I found under the primary source classification are now directly available through WATSONLINE. I’d like to show you two of them.

Through Intute, I came across The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot. To find it in WATSONLINE, enter a keyword(s) (I used “Fox Talbot”) and narrow the scope to e-resources from the drop-down menu. From the next page you can connect to the website.

The Correspondence of William Henry Fox Talbot project consists of a comprehensive edition of the nearly 10,000 letters to and from Talbot (1800-1877).

The letters are searchable by correspondents, dates, keywords. The letters are transcribed verbatim preserving the names, dates and other writing in the manner that the original author employed. The original spelling, punctuation and grammar have been retained. Editorial interpolations are minimal and have been clearly signaled. The numbers refer to the annotations at the end of the letter.

Another Intute source that is now available directly through WATSONLINE is the English Emblem Book Project that was conducted by the Pennsylvania State University Libraries with the aim of making full-text emblem books from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries available online.

At present there are 9 books available with full bibliographical details. The text is not searchable, but you may browse the books by table of contents and leaf through the pages by clicking on “next.”

Western European Studies Section Web (WESSWeb) is a section of the Association of College and Research Libraries, and it represent “librarians and others in the Association who specialize or are otherwise professionally involved in the acquisition, organization, and use of information sources originating in or relating to Western European countries.”

One of the things that the members of WESS have done is to create home pages devoted to the studies of major European cultures.

While each country’s page is organized in a slightly different fashion, they all include links to major library catalogs, to current newspapers, as well as a variety of other digital materials. One important thing to bear in mind is that the sources that have made it onto these pages have undergone a selection and evaluation process.

Let’s go to the German Studies Web. It offers a section on Digital Texts and Images focusing on major scholarly digitization projects. A list of portals gives brief descriptions of what each one is about. For example, Kulturerbe digital is a guide to hundreds of German digital projects; Frühe Neuzeit Digitalis is a collection of links to historical source documents of the early modern period.

I’d like to turn your attention to Periodicals and Newspapers. Many digitization projects are happening in this area. There is, for instance, The Enlightenment Periodicals Project that focuses on 18th and 19th century journals; Exilepresse is a collection of important German exile magazines. And there are many more.

Moving down the page, you’ll find Digitized Books and Manuscripts, a section that provides information about completed and ongoing digitization projects in this area in Germany and elsewhere.

At the end of the page, there are also links to a selection of works of individual authors.

WESSWeb is a rich research tool that will lead you, among other types of material, to original ones.

UbuWeb an online repository of concrete, sound and visual poetry, described as “a completely independent resource dedicated to all strains of the avant-garde, ethnopoetics, and outsider arts.” As the founders and administrators of it confess themselves, “UbuWeb posts much of its content without permission; “we rip out-of-print LPs into sound files; we scan as many old books as we can get our hands on; we post essays as fast as we can OCR (optical character recognition) them. UbuWeb is an unlimited resource with unlimited space to fill. It is in this way that the site has grown to encompass hundreds of artists, hundreds of gigabytes of sound files, books, texts and videos.”

UbuWeb’s search interface is friendly and straightforward.

A search for John Baldessari produced 27 results in different formats. Among them is the video called Baldessari Sings LeWitt from 1972. The video shows Baldessari singing Sol Lewitt’s forty-five-point tract on Conceptual Art to the tunes of The Star-Spangled Banner and Heaven, among other songs.

The site is a rich resource for original materials. For example, it has sound files of the Russian futurists reading their poetry; Yves Klein’s performances from the blue period and fire paintings, one of the first Cindy Sherman’s super-8 films from 1975, and much, much more.

UbuWeb has a section called Ubu Papers that contains contextual academic essays.

Below is a selection of additional resources that you might want to explore for locating primary sources.

Available through WATSONLINE:

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle online (subscription) was produced by the Brooklyn Public Library, and it currently  covers the first half of the newspaper’s existence, from 1841 to 1902. You may access the content of the paper either by date of issue or by keyword searching.

Macbeth Gallery exhibition catalogs is a collective digitization project of exhibition checklists and pamphlets of the Macbeth Gallery held by the Thomas J. Watson Library at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Art Reference Library. The Macbeth Gallery was the first New York gallery to specialize in American art and is historically important for exhibiting work by many American artists well-known to us today, including Winslow Homer, Charles H. Davis, and Andrew Wyeth.

To browse pages of the exhibition catalogs from the Macbeth Gallery, in WATSOLINE under author enter “Macbeth Gallery” and select Digital Collections from the drop-down menu at right.

British History Online is the digital library containing some of the core printed primary and secondary sources for the medieval and modern history of the British Isles.

Under Sources, you can link to full-text editions of primary sources, such as the journals of the houses of Parliament or manorial records such as feet of fines.

Eighteenth Century Collections Online (subscription) is a digital collection which includes full text access to over 30,000 English language and foreign language titles printed in the United Kingdom, along with thousands of important works from the Americas, between 1701 and 1800. ECCO contains the fully searchable, digitized image of a variety of materials including books, auction catalogs, artists’ biographies and handbooks, treatises on painting and architecture, pamphlets, broadsides, and ephemera. Our subscription includes Fine Arts and Social Sciences.

The simple search screen includes keyword, author, title, and full text. You may search within a particular sub-collection, Fine Arts or Social Sciences.

Free Web resources:

The Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence in partnership with other institutions digitized a number of manuscripts and early printed books on a variety of subjects, including history of science, mathematics, perspective, and works by Galileo.
To get to these collections, click on Library and Archives. Under the heading Digital Library, click on the link Thematic Collections. Once there, you can access any of the collections, among which is Bibliotheca Perspectivae, a collection of rare and precious treatises from the period between the 15th and the 18th centuries.
You can execute a simple search at the top of the thematic collections page. Search for “Durer,” for example. To be able to “enter” a book, click on See under the thumbnail image of a book.

Let’s search across all digital collections and instead, focus our search a bit more by selecting index search. Enter “Medici” in the author field. This yields several results, among which are 215 manuscripts by  Leopoldo de’ Medici. Clicking on “215” will take you to the list of the manuscripts. Let’s select the first one – a letter of 1640 from Leopoldo to his brother Ferdinando, Grand Duke of Tuscany.

The default view is index alongside the image. But you can change that to two images, which will give you the front and verso of a sheet. If you wish, you can view transcribed text next to the original, which is very helpful.

To zoom, you can either click on zoom and open another window with the enlarged text, or you can use the magnifying glass.

NYPL Digital Gallery “provides free and open access to over 685,000 images digitized from the The New York Public Library’s vast collections, including illuminated manuscripts, historical maps, vintage posters, rare prints, photographs and more.”

From the homepage of the Digital Gallery, enter “manuscripts” in the search box and explore.

You may also browse from the homepage by preselected headings, such as Arts & Literature, Cities & Buildings, Culture & Society, etc.

You may access the following NYPL collections through WATSONLINE directly:

Posters of Russian Civil War, 1918-1922

Asia and the Pacific Rim in early prints and photographs

Last updated 6/25/09