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Jewish Studies Research Guide

Research tools for Jewish Studies.

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are the raw materials of history, the documents and accounts "contemporary with the event or thought to which it refers."1 The following list, though certainly not exhaustive, may give you some ideas for primary sources useful in your own research.

Autobiographies and memoirs Legislative debates, bills, and laws
Personal correspondence Court procedings
Diaries and journals Political speeches and decrees
Financial statements and inventories Census data and other official statistics
Wills Newspapers
Photographs Church records
Maps Interviews
Artistic expressions (literature, music, etc.) Physical evidence (coins, architecture, etc.)

1. John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, 3rd ed. (New York : Longman, 2000), 38.

Interpreting Primary Sources

When reading a primary source, consider the following to evaluate and interpret its content:

How reliable is the author's account?  Was the author an eye-witness to the events described? Was the document written immediately, or did some time intervene between the event and documentation?  Was the author in a position to fully understand her subject (e.g. European travel writers describing foreign customs)?

What was the author's purpose? Was the document intended to persuade or convince the reader?  Was the intent to deliver an impartial recounting of events? Was the document intended only for internal record keeping, as in a business or administrative office?

Who was the author's intended audience?  Was the document written for posterity, to present a specific view of the past (e.g. autobiography)? Was the document written for public consumption at the time it was written (e.g. newspapers)?  Was the document private, and never intended for the public (e.g. personal correspondence, diaries)?  How might the intended audiences influence the author's account?

What is the context of the document? Does the language used have the same meaning now that it did in the past? How or why was the document created? How does the document relate to other contemporary records?

Primary Sources at Tulane

The libraries and special collections at Tulane University include many collections of primary source material of interested to scholars in Jewish Studies.  Use the links below or in the drop-down menu above for a sample of these collections available in a variety of formats.

Finding Primary Sources

Some primary sources are only available in an archive or special collection with limited access.  Others have been digitized and may be available through a subscription database provided by Howard-Tilton. Be sure to check the tab Archives & Research Libraries for the former, and the tab Primary Sources [Online] for the latter.


Some primary sources have been published in book form. Autobiographies were likely written with the intent of being published, while historical diaries might be published posthumously, often accompanied by an historian's introduction or interpretation. Some books are simply published collections of manuscripts, correspondences, or government documents.  Any of these published materials can be discovered by searching the library catalog.  The following subdivisions of subject headings may be useful in tracking down these published primary source materials:

Sources  (e.g. Great Britain--History--Tudors, 1485-1603--Sources)

Diaries  (e.g. Women--Louisiana--Diaries)

Personal narratives  (e.g. World War, 1939-1945--Personal narratives, Japanese.)

Correspondence  (e.g. Augustine, Saint, Bishop of Hippo--Correspondence.)

Interviews  (e.g. Artists--Mexico--Interviews)

Quotations  (e.g. Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865--Quotations)

Description and travel  (e.g. Israel--Description and travel)

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