Historical Periodicals Can be Primary Source Documents, Too

Library Resources | Heather Peckham Emerson| December 04, 2017

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Primary source documents can be more than just handwritten letters and diaries, or maps and legal documents. They can also be historical periodicals, representative of timely trends. Find out how resources from the American Antiquarian Society Historical Periodicals Collection serve as primary source documents for student research.

Some might be inclined to view magazines and periodicals as secondary sources. However, academic researchers believe the difference between a primary source document and a secondary source is largely defined by how that resource is being used.

Some of the strongest examples of this come from historical periodicals. While they can offer a wealth of memoirs, speech transcripts, letters, reprints of government documents and eyewitness accounts of events, they have far more to offer as primary source documents in studying culture, or topics such as literature, journalism, publishing or advertising.

“The difference between a primary source document and a secondary source is largely defined by how that resource is being used.”

The wide variety of historical publications ranging from international magazines to regionally focused specialty periodicals and local newsletters can provide accurate, era-specific information about the local language, events, attitudes, and cultural markers of a certain era.

Some examples include:

  • Advertisements provide evidence as to what was available for purchase, technologies sold at the time and trending markets or demographics.
  • Illustrations, fashion plates, home sewing and crafting instructions provide concrete proof of historical styles and methods in fashion, architecture and interior decorating.
  • Letters to the Editor and editorials themselves can provide a wealth of information about current perspectives, such as attitudes toward politics, etiquette and various trends. Comparison between regions or readerships will provide primary source support of these cultural markers.
  • Proof of different trends in language usage, publishing styles and journalism from various classes, eras and regions are evident in the writing and printing itself.

Having a view of those periodicals over time allows for an analysis of overall cultural trends. It isn’t just the sources from a certain time or era, but the evolution of those sources over time — and even which sources come and go — that can provide proof of changes or patterns in a society.  How were women portrayed over time? What were the dominant medical beliefs on childbirth? How was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein received over time — from initial publishing to reprints? How did the Republican Party develop and change in its platform? Who was creating political cartoons and who was reading them? The ability to identify, track, and provide primary source support for trends on various topics is a powerful use of periodicals.

The largest collection of periodicals published in North America can be found in the archives of the American Antiquarian Society. This vast collection of subject-specific titles and general-interest journals spans 1684 through 1912, and contains an incredible variety of periodicals covering both local and international information. Learn more here

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