Primary Sources Online: The National Archive and Native American Treaties

The National Archive in Washington DC

Especially if you are writing nonfiction, but also for fiction, it is a good idea to include primary sources whenever possible.  Primary sources are first hand accounts.  Diaries, letters and even photographs are primary sources.  Primary sources are important because they are uninterpretted.  You get what someone at the scene observed.

This week when I was updating a lesson on primary sources, I popped over to the National Archives. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the archive of the US Federal Government. This is copies are kept of all documents that are legally or historically vital.  People use this material to research family history, veteran records and topics of historical interest.

Among other things, the Archive’s home page lists newsworthy items.  “Efforts Begin to Digitize 377 Native Treaties.”  What it comes down to is that efforts are underway to scan 377 treaties and supporting material.

One of the goals of the Archive is to make material as accessible as possible.  In this day and age, that means making it digital.

Pamela Wright is the Archives’ Chief Innovation Officer.  “The project boldly addresses three of our agency’s strategic goals: making access happen, connecting with customers, and maximizing our value to the nation,” Wright said. “We currently have over 65 million digital records available in the catalog. With over 12 billion textual records in our holdings, our big hairy audacious goal is to have them all available online one day.”

I have to admit that part of the reason this interests me is that it is hard to find unbiased material about early Native American history.  Because of this, anyone who writes about the contents of a treaty is going to pick and choose the parts that illustrate their own point-of-view.  This is why primary sources are so important and with treaties digitized I’ll be able to see, first-hand, what each of these treaties promised.

Spend some time at the digital archive.  You will find photos, senate and house records, military records and more.  My only warning – don’t do it when you are on deadline unless the research relates to said deadline.  The photographs especially tend to pull me in.


Research: Do I really need to find each fact three times?

threeI’m currently writing an article on the difference between a nonfiction picture book manuscript and a nonfiction article manuscript.  One of the writers I interviewed reminded our readers that they should find each and every article in three different sources.  I’m including her quote although I don’t necessarily agree.

The reality is that someone can write something and the piece she writes can be used as a source in several other works.  When this happens, certain facts will be repeated several times.  The funny thing is that this happens with fallacies as well as facts especially if something is sensational.

The other problem with this rule is that a primary source may state something or explain something that no one else has seen fit to repeat.  That’s been the case with my work on the black women who were mathematicians at NASA during World War II.  After oscilloscope readings were made on a paper recording tape, the women had to use a tape reader to calculate the difference between the actual test data and a set of reference points.  One of the tools that they used to do this is called a film reader.   Unfortunately, most people who write about their work see the gizmo in question and call it a slide rule.  Two different gizmos and, to make it even more confusing, both were used by the mathematicians.  BUT the film reader was used at one point in the process and the slide rule in another.

How many places have I found slide rules mentioned?  I quit counting.

How many places have I found film readers mentioned.  I’ve found it in several places but all within the same source.  Why do I trust it over the others?  Because it is a historical summary written by one of the mathematicians and published by NASA.

Do you need to find each fact three times?  It will make your editor feel better but you still need to make sure that you find it in three accurate sources and not simply three sources restating the same incorrect “fact.”


Research: What Sources Should You Use?

research materialsWhen I begin a new project that requires research the first thing that I do is do a library search.  I request nonfiction for adults and children and also do a database search for articles of all kinds.

Although I read the material that has already been published for children, these are not my sources.  These are my competition.  I want to see what they’ve included so that I can deal with the information in a different way. Sometimes this means including new findings that they didn’t include.  Sometimes it means letting my readers in on a controversy.  Other times it simply means using an organization that is more appealing or less intimidating or confusing.

The actual research materials are the adult materials that I have gathered.  Some of them are secondary sources; others are primary.

Primary sources are eyewitness accounts, first hand materials, one degree of separation from the actual event.  Interviews, scholarly papers, National Geographic articles, documentaries, and photographs all fall under primary sources.

Secondary sources are books and articles based on primary sources.  At best, there are two degrees of separation between secondary sources and the actual event.  That said, read them as well.  They can often clue you in on a topic you need to look for in the primary sources and may also be the source material that you need to use when the primary materials are not available.

How many sources do you need?  It depends on what you are writing.  My book on the Ancient Maya had 51 sources.  My book on Pearl Harbor had 78.  I have no idea how many sources I’ll need for my current project, a book on the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The word count for this book is less than a quarter of the count for either of the other two.  Somehow I doubt that the bibliography will reflect this but I won’t know until I turn in my finished draft this January.



Experts: Primary Sources that give you the Last Word on a Topic

ExpertI’m working on a new nonfiction topic and, as usual, I’ve picked a tough one.  I say as usual because this is the second project I’ve done that features a large number of different animals.  Last time it included octopus, flounder, bittern, zorilla and jaguar.  This time, I’ve researched house flies, white-tailed deer, bull frogs and rats.

The problem with all of this animal research is trying to find accurate biology on either pest animals or game animals.  Scientists research exotics but things closer to home aren’t as “sexy” and don’t draw as much attention. A lot of the information that I do find is anecdotal or what I lovingly call folksy.  I need science with real research.  I know that’s narrow minded of me but it seems to make my editors happy.

Sometimes I think I have enough information until I try to write.  As I try to describe whatever process, I just can’t pull it together.  That’s when I know I don’t have enough information.  What to do?

  1. Do another search.  Usually I’ve refined my knowledge and can come up with better key words by now but that doesn’t always mean that I can find additional articles.  Still, I try.
  2. Look for a name.  Whether I’ve found 2 articles or 10, if my knowledge is incomplete, I need to find more.  I pull up the most helpful article and look for a name.  Who wrote the article?  Who did this person interview?
  3. Send an e-mail.  If the author of the helpful article was the expert, that’s who I e-mail.  If not, I look for people they might have interviewed.  In my e-mail, I introduce myself as a children’s writer.  “I’m not sure I understand this and I want to make sure that I don’t mislead my readers.”
  4. Wait.  Once I’ve sent out the e-mail, it’s time to work on something else.  If I haven’t heard from anyone in two or three days, I look for another person to contact but I’m always amazed by the number of busy researchers who want to teach kids about their topic.

Going to the experts is the best way for me to find the information that I need to create a clear explanation picture for my readers.  Experts always know more than they’ve written.  Fortunately, they are often more than willing to share.




Primary Research: Folklife Today

Not surprisingly, the Library of Congress has an amazing collection of primary materials ranging from photographs to musical recordings and artifacts of various kinds. For me, knowing what they have and what I might look for is tricky.  There is just so much.  One way that I find out about what they have is by reading their blogs and they’ve just added a new one.

Folklife Today is the blog of the American Folklife Center which documents traditional culture in the U.S.   Created in 1928, it is one of the largest archives of U.S and other ethnographic materials. The collection includes both visual and audio documentation of traditional art, cultural expression, and oral history including songs, stories, and other means of expression.

In addition to finding out what the Library has on a given topic, the first blog also points out changes in thinking about a topic.  The first post is about Halloween and includes information on what we thought then (in the 1980s) vs what we know now.

Read this blog regularly and you will learn not only what resources the library has, but you may also find yourself inspired to write something new.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some research on Samhain to do…



American  Folklife Center - Washington, DCDo you get information about primary history sources on your Facebook Newsfeed?  Why not?  Historic photographs and decades-old musical recordings can all find their way to your feed if you “Like” the American Folklife Center Facebook Page.  Although it may not be something that I need right now, it just might be what I need to inspire a new story or get out of a writing slump.

You never know what might be making its way into your feed.  It might be information about an upcoming event or information on the webcast for the Seeger Family Concert.

Now, if you’ll excuse me.  I have some music to enjoy.  It just might inspire a story.



Library of Congress Making Even more information available digitally

I hope you’re as big of a research geek as I am and that you keep up with the latest additions to the Library of Congress’s digital archives.

If not, check out this post on the LOC blog about the latest digital additions to their collection.  Over 45,000 Great Depression Era photographs within the Farm Security Administration Collection have been digitized.

Click here to view the entire collection.  You can also visit this link to search within the collection.  Adding the word “horse” narrowed it to just under 300 items, many of which referred to the town of Horse Caves.  “Pumpkins” yielded only 5 items.

Even if you end up with a large number of results, thumbnail images to the left of each listing make for quick scanning of the results.

Check out this collection if you are writing something set during the Great Depression.  You may be amazed at what you find.



When Map Locations Move Around

Where did it go? Do your map work when writing about the past.

Recently, I read an interesting piece about a historian who decided to do a little research on her own family.  There was a family story about an ancestor whose  rancho was in Mexico.  She was surprised to discover that the rancho is just outside of San Francisco.

The reality is that international boundaries move around as do coastlines, islands and bodies of water.  What do I mean?

As a recent lecture about the Sultana, a riverboat that exploded just after the Civil War, the lecturer showed a photo of the field that contains the wreckage of the boat.  Yep.  Its in a field although it sunk in a river.

If you are writing about a historic location, you should visit it if at all possible.  You’ll get a feel for the geography and what the sun feels like in New Mexican high desert vs coastal Maine.  But you also need to do your map work.

Maps will help you see what the place was like way back when.  You need to look for both the man made — buildings, roads and other physical structures — as well as what I consider the make-believe man made — political boundaries and the like.

But even that isn’t enough.  Look at the land itself.  Earthquakes, erosion and more shift land from place to place.  Bodies of water dry up.  Rivers move.  Islands shift downstream.

Geography isn’t nearly as static as we imagine it to be.  Keep this in mind and do your research.  Your editor will be glad you did.


Civil Rights Database

If you are researching Civil Rights for either a fiction or nonfiction project, check out The Civil Rights History Project at the Library of Congress site.

This isn’t a collection but a portal through which you can find Civil Rights audio visual material located in collections across the country.  The materials themselves can be found in historical societies, special university collections and even public libraries across the U.S.

Want to know about the marches?  Look it up in the topic index.

Have a Library of Congress Subject Heading (LCSH)?  You can look things up that way too.

Maybe you’re wondering what your local historical society or library has.  You can search by institution name as well.

Finally, if you live in or are visiting Chicago, search by geographic location and see what is nearby.

Granted, it would be nice if this material could be remotely accessed, and maybe some of it can.  You’ll find out by contacting the appropriate institution.  Happy Researching!


Old Magazines

If you’re a history buff like I am, just picking through old magazines is a blast and Old Magazine Articles gives you the chance to do just that.

Browse Recently Added Articles or by topics that include Aviation/Women Pilots, Dance, Early Television and more.  You can also do a topic search.

A great source of primary material, this isn’t a university or historical society archives.   It simply represents the passion of a history buff and magazine lover who asks that if you use one of the articles that you credit the site.

Special thanks to Matt Jacobsen, Editor of Old Magazine Articles and Research Buzz which is where I found the information on this site.