The Real Thing: Photos, Letters and Primary Sources

, PCC Faculty Librarian

May 23, 2012

My first, and perhaps best, job in a library was working as a page for the Minnesota Historical Society Library. The MHS Library is a closed-stack, non-circulating collection, so if you want to look at something in the collection, you had to come in and fill out a form to have someone like myself bring the item out to you. Because I was a page, I got to touch wonderful things such as Charles Lindbergh's scrapbooks when he was learning to fly for the Army. (Scroll down on that one to see the photos.) There were photographs of Dakota chiefs, including Mankato. I got to handle (and put a tiny tear in) the plans for George Washington's canal around the Great Falls of the Potomac, signed by Washington, and I held the hand-written letter from Abraham Lincoln granting clemency to 285 Dakota who had been sentenced to hang for participating in the Sioux Uprising of 1862.

What these had in common is that they were actual documents relating to historical events. They weren't someone's interpretation, they were things themselves. Historians call these 'primary sources.' Primary sources aren't limited to history. Want to look at a Mozart manuscript? That's a primary source. Want to read Darwin's notes - that's a primary source. Want to view the original footage of a whale killing, later shown on the 'Whale Wars' television program? That's a primary source.

The PCC library does have a few unique things, such as videotaped interviews with former residents of Vanport, back copies of the much-missed PCC newspaper, “The Bridge”,  or prints by Goya, Miró, and Rembrandt.  But for most primary source material, we have to be satisfied with digitalized copies. These can still be cool to use for teaching. How about some of Linus Pauling papers? Malcolm Little’s (aka ‘Malcolm X’) work record for the Pullman Railroad Car Company?

Given a bit of lead time, the PCC librarians can try and track down digital versions of primary source materials. Such things haven’t always been digitalized, but a surprising number have. Some are just ‘there’, such as the Oregon Newspaper Project, which has 180,000 pages of Oregon Newspapers online. Others are pre-packaged, such as the Newberry Library’s collections of original sources on various topics, such as the Aztecs.

Closer to home, have you looked at the photograph collection mounted to commemorate the PCC 50th Anniversary?

Primary sources bring the past to life, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love them. Contact us for help - we just might be able to find something.

Library & Learning
Vol. 3 Issue 2 May 2012