Nabb Research Center Tools - Working with Primary Sources
Interacting with and interpreting primary source materials can be very informative and rewarding. It can also be confusing, especially for new researchers or those simply new to the study of Delmarva history!
The resources offered here are intended to assist new and veteran researchers in navigating Delmarva's historical materials.
The difference between primary and secondary sources
Primary sources are "actual records that have survived from the past, such as letters,
photographs, articles of clothing." Secondary sources are "accounts of the past created by people writing about
events sometime after they happened."
[Library of Congress definition]
Primary sources can be materials that were published (autobiographies, advertisements, maps, laws, court decisions, etc.) or unpublished (personal letters, diaries, journals, wills, etc.). Primary source materials also include oral traditions/histories (accounts from people with firsthand knowledge of events) and visual artifacts (photographs, clothing, tombstones, etc.).
Secondary sources may also be published or unpublished, based upon oral tration, or expressed through a the medium of material culture, but they are created after (usually long after) an event.
Overview of the kinds of sources that are available
Delmarva has a wide array of primary sources available for analysis and study. An abbreviated list includes: Public Records, Enumeration Lists, Church Records, Economic Records, Maps, Photographs, Personal Correspondence, and Family Histories.
Coming soon: comprehensive list of available sources.
The types of information that can be found in various sources
A tremendous amount of valuable information can be found in primary sources, but this information is not always easy to locate. The
best strategy is to know and understand what types of sources contain certain types of information.
Information about locating/acquiring the materials
There are several research facilities that provide access to Delmarva's primary source materials, as well as a growing number of online repositories of historical data (including this site!).
Information about transcribing historic documents
Historic records - especially colonial-era documents - can be particularly challenging to transcribe because of several factors, including the condition of the materials, the lack of standardized spelling of words, and elaborate handwriting styles.
Click here for information about letter formation, spelling conventions, and other common problems with transcribing early records.
The importance of understanding the larger historical context
Suggestions for reconciling conflicting information in sources
Overview of why some information cannot be located