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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

History 203A: Riots, Revolutions, and Revolts.

Guide to researching roles for the Reacting to the Past module on American Revolution, women's suffrage, labor rights, Greenwich Village ca. 1913, and the Chicago Democratic National Convention protests in 1968.

Challenges to Anticipate

The above email was in response to a question I sent a local museum about textual and non-textual artifacts in their collection that could be used to document queer histories in east central Illinois. It exemplifies a key problem for researchers of history: too often libraries, museums, archives, and other memory institutions have failed to collect the documents of marginalized communities, and, as famously expressed by Langlois and Seignbos, "the Historian works with documents [. . .] no documents, no history".1

That said, evidence of "history from below" can still be found throughout the historical record, in both expected and unexpected places. A challenge for the researcher, however, is that libraries and archives have not traditionally described these documents in a way that makes them easily discoverable. For example: aside from its appearance in medical and penal records, queer experience might often not even have been recognizable to librarians, archivists, museum curators, and others charged with collecting and organizing historical documents.

In some cases, members of marginalized groups had plenty of reasons not to document their own experiences. Allen Spear's explains some of the reasons in his foreword to the gay memoir, Evening Crowd at Kirmser's:

[Gay men and lesbians] lived in constant fear of exposure. A casual slip, the slightest crack in the facade could lead to loss of job, loss of social standing, rejection by family and friends, even criminal prosecution and jail.2

For LGBTQ individuals, choosing honestly to document their experiences could be a risk too great to assume, and often, as Spears explains, there was much incentive to leave a documentary trail of obfuscation, misdirection, and outright deception.

The result is what Amy Stone and Jaime Cantrell describe as "a long history of LGBT life being 'hidden from history,' obscured within existing sources, or discarded entirely".3

Compounding the problem was a legal regime aimed at restricting access to information about homosexuality. For a time, public library patrons could not even examine books on homosexuality without presenting a physician's note authorizing the use of such books, and many who wrote about LGBTQ life had difficulty finding publishers due to the very real risk of legal prosecution.4 The Comstock Act attempted to limit the circulation of "obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy, or vile" publications, and the law was widely applied to publications treating homosexuality. Enforcement of the Comstock Act continued past 1950. In 1958 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Post Office's attempt to suppress a gay magazine, but the federal government continued using other laws to criminalize LGBT publications into the 1970s.5

Expect similar obstacles in researching protest movements and resistance movements, especially those that were "underground".

Where to Start?

Once you have defined your research topic, you should also work out a research plan. The usual starting point is to identify the main currents of thought on your topic. Naturally, you need to know which historians have taken up this topic, what their main arguments are, and how our understanding of the subject has changed with shifts in the predominant methodologies and theoretical perspectives in the historical profession. In answering these questions, you will use secondary sources (the published work of scholars specializing in the topic); this is also termed the secondary literature on the subject. You will want to situate yourself in relation to the secondary literature on your topic. Does your analysis agree with previous scholarship, or are you offering a new and different interpretation?

Secondary Sources

Secondary literature includes scholarly books, articles, and essays (both analyses by contemporary scholars as well as older scholarly analyses), surveys, criticism, comparative studies, reference sources, and works on theory and methodology. When we talk about secondary sources, most of the time we are referring to the published scholarship on a subject, rather than the supplemental material (bibliographies, encyclopedias, handbooks, etc.). Secondary literature is published both in book form and as articles in periodicals, either in print or digital format. (Digital format includes both reproduction of print material online and original e-text.)

To identify secondary literature, you can do subject searches in the Library Catalog to find books or subject searches in article databases to find articles; article databases may list books as well as articles from journals. You can also consult standard published bibliographies (e.g., the American Historical Association Guide to Historical Literature) and specialized bibliographies (e.g., Film, An International Bibliography, 2002).

You can also look for review essays, in which a historian who specializes in the subject analyzes recent scholarship; you may find more lengthy historiographical treatments of the topic published as chapters in collections, journal articles, or even monographs; you can read about the topic in a subject encyclopedia and look at the bibliography at the end of the entry; and you can find a major work of scholarship on the topic and follow up on the sources used by the author (footnote tracking).

Most of the time you will find the secondary literature you need by using the online catalog, the appropriate article databases, subject encyclopedias or bibliographies, and by consulting with your instructor.

Primary Sources

Source base: Since you are doing original research for this course, you will need to identify primary sources in addition to the secondary literature on the subject. These are sources produced at the time of the event or phenomenon you are investigating, which purport to document it. They reflect what someone observed or believed about an event at the time it occurred or soon thereafter. These sources provide the raw material that you will analyze and interpret. Primary sources can be published or unpublished (archival).

In general, published primary source material covers a wide range of publications, including first-person accounts, memoirs, diaries, letters, newspapers, statistical reports, government documents, reports of associations, organizations and institutions, treatises and polemical writings, chronicles, saints’ lives, charters, legal codes, maps, iconographic material (e.g., photographs, posters, advertising images, paintings, prints, and illustrations), literary works and motion pictures. Some of these materials were not published at the time of their creation (e.g., letters), but have subsequently been published in a book.

Obviously there are different types of primary sources for different historical periods. Church documents and saints’ lives serve as primary sources for the study of medieval history, while newspapers, government reports, and films serve as primary sources for the modern period. Moreover, what constitutes a primary source depends in part on how you have formulated your research topic. In other words, there is no intrinsic or distinguishing feature of a text that makes it a primary, rather than secondary, source. Many sources, whether visual or textual, can serve as either primary or secondary sources. The key is how you use the material. In order to determine whether a source might be primary or secondary for your purposes, you must consider it in relation to your particular topic.

You can find published primary sources by using the online catalog and published bibliographies. You can also look at secondary literature on your topic to see what sources other scholars have used in their research. Remember that there is nothing in the online catalog record for a book that indicates whether it is a primary or secondary source, since this is not an inherent or essential characteristic.

For purposes of library research, a key distinction to bear in mind is published sources v. unpublished sources (rather than primary sources v. secondary sources). To find published sources (secondary literature or published primary sources), you should search the Library catalogs. The online catalog contains records for books and journals, and you should search it when you are looking for books on a topic (subject searching), or when you have a citation to a specific book or journal.

The online article databases and print periodical indexes provide citations to articles in journals and, in the case of some of the online article databases, also provide links to the actual text of the articles. Use these when you want to find journal articles or citations to articles on a topic. For the older, print indexes, and for some of the online article databases, once you have a list of articles on your topic, you will need to search the journal titles (not the article titles!) in the online catalog in order to determine their call number and location (departmental library, such as History, Philosophy and Newspaper Library, the main bookstacks, or the Oak Street remote storage facility).

The UIUC Library also has some unpublished primary source material (archives and manuscripts). This is a relatively small body of material compared to the abundance of published primary sources held by the Library.

Published vs Unpublished Primary Sources

Unpublished primary sources are original documents and artifacts of all kinds that were created by individuals but not published (that is, made public --issued in a format that could be widely distributed) during the period you are studying. In the past, only archives and museums preserved these kinds of primary source materials, and researchers had to travel all over the world to use them. With the invention of microfilming, and later, digitization, it became possible to create facsimiles of large collections of primary source materials. Large research libraries like the UIUC Library have extensive collections of microfilm and digital facsimiles of unpublished primary sources. Universities also have rare books libraries and university archives, which hold original unpublished primary source materials.

In general, published primary source material covers a wide range of publications, including first-person accounts, memoirs, diaries, letters, newspapers, statistical reports, government documents, court records, reports of associations, organizations and institutions, treatises and polemical writings, chronicles, saints' lives, charters, legal codes, maps, graphic material (e.g. photographs, posters, advertising images, paintings, prints, and illustrations), literary works and motion pictures. Some of these materials were not published at the time of their creation (e.g. letters), but have subsequently been published in a book. For example, The Selected Papers of Margaret Sanger is a selection from birth control activist Margaret Sanger's letters and other unpublished papers, presented in chronological order, which contextual information provided by expert editors.

Here's an overview:


How Do I Find Primary Sources?

There are many ways to find digitized primary sources, both published and unpublished, starting with our Digital Collections guide:

You can find published primary sources by using library catalogs, research guides, and published bibliographies. You can also look at secondary literature on your topic to ascertain what sources other scholars have used in their research. Our Guide to Primary Source Reprints is another good place to look for published primary sources:

To find published primary sources in library catalogs, try these strategies:

-Search by date of publication to find sources that were published during the time period you're researching --you can also use this strategy in full-text digital collections such as ProQuest Historical Newspapers

-Use the library catalog advanced search option and include one or more of these Library of Congress Subject Heading form subdivisions as subject search terms:

  • Correspondence
  • Sources
  • Diaries
  • Personal narratives
  • Interviews
  • Speeches
  • Documents
  • Archives
  • Early works to 1800
  • Manuscripts

You can find unpublished primary sources in the University of Illinois Library in the library catalog and in the University Archives Holdings Database. You can find materials held by other archives and museums using ArchiveGrid (an inventory of archival finding aids), or using the "archival material" format in WorldCat. Microfilm facsimiles of primary source materials are also included in WorldCat and other library catalogs:


If you're having trouble finding primary sources for a topic you've already started researching, go back to your secondary literature: what sources have other scholars consulted?  These should be cited in the footnotes or endnotes and/or described in an essay in the back of the book.

If you haven't decided on your topic yet, browsing the primary source collections described in the Digital Collections Guide can be a good way to find inspiration. Find a source that interests you, whether it's something you're surprised by, something that doesn't make sense, or just something you'd like to know more about.

If you have time, one of the best guides to conducting serious library research is the Oxford Guide to Library Research:

Don't forget that you can Ask a Librarian for assistance at any stage of your research, or, for more in depth assistance, Schedule a Research Consultation with a subject specialist librarian:


1. Charles Victor Langlois and Charles Seignobos, Introduction to the Study of History, trans. George Godfrey Berry (New York: H. Holt, 1932), 17.

2.  Allen H. Spear, foreword to The Evening Crowd at Kirmser's:  A Gay Life in the 1940s, by Ricardo J. Brown, ed. William Reichard (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press,  2001), xi-x.

3. Out of the Closet, into the Archives: Researching Sexual Histories, eds. Amy L. Stone and Jaime Cantrell (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 2015), 3.

4. Alan D. Winter, "The Gay Press: A History of the Gay Community and Its Publications" (unpublished manuscript, 1976), 21.

5. William N. Eskridge, Jr., "Federal Law and Policy," in Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America, ed. Marc Stein (Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2004), 375-381.