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European American Studies Research Guide: Primary Sources

Primary Sources

Primary sources are documents that were recorded or written down at the time an event occurred. Primary sources can include diaries, letters, speeches, photographs, newspaper articles, government documents, and much more. For more information, see What are Primary Sources

To find primary sources held at the MSU Libraries, perform a keyword search in the library catalog with the terms s:Indians and s:North America and one of the following subject keyword(s)  s:archives; s:archival resources; cs:orrespondence; s:diaries; s:manuscripts; s:notebooks, sketchbooks, etc.; s:personal narratives; s:personnel records; s:records and correspondence; and s:sources.   The last option -- s:sources will probably be the most productive. 

Primary Sources Online Exhibit

Primary Sources Online Exhibit - Introduces the many types of primary sources used by researchers, with examples from Special Collections.  Courtesy of Ruth Ann Jones and Lesley Brown.

Primary Sources (Electronic)

North American Immigrant Letters, Diaries and Oral Histories includes 2,162 authors and approximately 100,000 pages of information, so providing a unique and personal view of what it meant to immigrate to America and Canada between 1800 and 1950. Composed of contemporaneous letters and diaries, oral histories, interviews, and other personal narratives, the series provides a rich source for scholars in a wide range of disciplines. In selected cases, users will be able to hear the actual audio voices of the immigrants. The collection will be particularly useful to researchers, because much of the original material is difficult to find, poorly indexed, and unpublished; most bibliographies of the immigrant focus on secondary research; and few oral histories have been published.

Oral History Online. A landmark database of English language oral histories. It contains at present more than 34,000 pages of full-text content that is available exclusively in Alexander Street Press databases. This full-text material includes Ellis Island oral history narratives and rare Black Panther Party interviews. With each quarterly update of Oral History Online, we will add more of such proprietary (in-copyright) full-text interviews.

Finlandia University Finnish American Historical Archive

The Finlandia University Finnish American Historical Archive offers two collections of potential interest: Finnish Folklore and Social Change in the Great Lakes Mining Region Oral History Project 1972-1978 (Funded in part by the National Endowment For The Humanities) and the F.F.S.C.G.L.M.R. Digitization Project 2010-2011 (Funded in part by the Keweenaw National Historic Park Advisory Commission).  Scroll down past the alphabetical listings and it will include a short description of what each interview focused on.  If a transcript is available, it will have a .pdf link under the interviewee's name.  If audio clips are available, there will be a link at the bottom of the interview description.  Not all interviews have transcripts or excerpts.  Often, that means the interview was in Finnish, and it hasn't yet been fully translated.  It is also possible to order copies of full interviews on CD.  The cost would be $10/interview + shipping.

John Novak Digial Interview Collection

John Novak Digital Interview Collection (Marygrove College). Consists of interviews about immigration, migration, and the Civil Rights Movement. The interviewees, who range in age from 20 to 90, speak of their experiences moving to and within the United States. Listen to interviews from Esperanza Perez whose Mexican mother crossed the border to give birth to her daughter so that she could be an American citizen, Earnest Stamps who recounts his train ride to Detroit and his wonderment upon arrival at the Michigan Central Station, or Yvonne Revell who was a participant in the Greensboro Sit-in demonstrations. The project began in 2004 as part of a Teacher-Scholar award received by Professor Dena Scher in the Psychology/ Social Sciences Department of Marygrove College. In 2006, librarian Michael Barnes adapted the digital interviews into a special collection within the auspices of the Marygrove College Library.

Oral History Interviews

Oral History Interviews (Hope College/Holland Joint Archives).. An extensive collection of oral history transcripts covering a variety of events, ethnic groups, and citizens of Holland, Michigan. Includes sections on members of the Hispanic community (1990), Dutch immigrants (1992), Hispanic residents (1993), and Asian and African American Residents (1994).

John and Selma Appel Collection of Ethnic Images (MSU Museum)

The John and Selma Appel Collection is one of the nation's largest collections of printed ephemera depicting ethnic stereotypes in caricature and cartoons. The late Dr. John Appel, Professor Emeritus of American Thought and Language at Michigan State University and Adjunct Curator at the Michigan State University Museum, and his wife, Selma Appel, Research Associate, Michigan State University Museum, began to collect immigrant and ethnic images in popular graphics in 1965. The Appels donated the collection, plus their reference library and documentary materials, to the Michigan State University Museum in 1994.

The collection consists of 934 cartoons, prints and lithographs, 1034 postcards, 340 trade cards, 41 stereopticon slides, 179 sheet music, 15 comic strips and two dozen other miscellaneous visual materials, including greeting cards, valentines, advertisements. The materials in the collection date primarily from the Civil War to World War I, a period of massive migration to the United States. To modern Americans, the contents are sometimes humorous, sometimes very disturbing. Nonetheless, the collection depicts American values and attitudes of its period and is a remarkable resource for the study of American cultural history.

For more information, contact Lynne Swanson at

Finnish American Collections (MSU Museum)

One of the many ethnic communities represented in the MSU Museum's collections is Finnish Americans, whose population in Michigan, especially in the Upper Peninsula, is the largest and most concentrated in the United States. The Finnish American Collections include rag rugs, placemats, looms, sauna stove, as well as archival materials such as audio tapes of interviews, audio tapes and CDs of music, field reports, photographs, videos, articles and books that cover such topics as textiles making and use, sauna making and culture, foodways, music and dance, and being Finnish American.

For more information contact Lynne Swantson at

Primary Sources (Print)

In their own words : letters from Norwegian immigrants / edited, translated and introduced by Solveig Zempel. Minneapolis, Minn. : University of Minnesota Press, c1991. 225pp. E184.S2 I5 1991 (also available online) : These translations of letters home by nine Norwegian immigrants detail their perception of America and their adjustment to its lifestyle between 1870 and 1945

Italians in the United States : a repository of rare tracts and miscellaneaNew York : Arno Press, 1975. 591pp.  Main Library Stacks E184.I8 I84

Letters from the promised land : Swedes in America, 1840-1914 / [edited] by H. Arnold Barton.  Minneapolis : Published by the University of Minnesota Press for the Swedish Pioneer Historical Society, [1975]  344pp.  Remote Storage E184.S8 L47 1975 (Also available online)  : Through translations of letters written to family and friends between 1840 and 1914, this book traces the daily lives, hopes, ideals and aspirations of Swedish immigrants to the USA. Their individual experiences are presented, reflecting each writer's subjective view of historical events.

Subject Guide

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