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ARCHIVED: Criminal Justice Resources: Primary Sources

Making Sense of Evidence

Part of the History Matters web site, Making Sense of Evidence "helps students and teachers make effective use of primary sources. “Making Sense of Documents ” provide strategies for analyzing online primary materials, with interactive exercises and a guide to traditional and online sources. “Scholars in Action ” segments show how scholars puzzle out the meaning of different kinds of primary sources, allowing you to try to make sense of a document yourself then providing audio clips in which leading scholars interpret the document and discuss strategies for overall analysis."

Using Primary Resources in Your Research

Checkout this guide to Primary Sources created by Ruth Ann Jones and Lesley Brown of the Michigan State University Libraries.  For even more examples, visit this list of Primary Sources with links.

FBI Records on Microfilm

The MSU has an extensive collection of FBI files on microfilm on 2 East.  Click on the microfilm tab for a partial list.

FBI Records Available Over the Internet

FBI Records Are Also Available Over the Internet

Here are some examples of FBI records pertaining to African Americans or related topics that have been digitized and made available over the Internet:

To find electronic FBI records, do a subject search in the MSU Library online catalog using the subject United States Federal Bureau Of Investigation Archives

Atlanta child murders

Billie Holiday

Black Panther Party

Charles "Sonny" Liston

Elijah Muhammad 

Gangster Disciples

Malcolm X

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Medgar Evers

MIBURN (Mississippi Burning)

Nation of Islam

Paul and Eslanda Robeson

FBI Files Available in Online Database

Federal response to radicalism in the 1960s [electronic resource].  Organized alphabetically by organization, this collection covers a wide range of viewpoints on political, social, cultural, and economic issues. It sheds light on internal organization, personnel, and activities of some of the most prominent American radical groups and their movements to change American government and society. Date range: 1956-1971. Content: 87,391 images.  Contents : COINTELPRO: the counterintelligence program of the FBI -- FBI file on Abbie Hoffman -- FBI file on the Black Panther Party, North Carolina -- FBI file on Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers -- FBI file on the fire bombing and shooting at Kent State University -- FBI files on Malcolm X -- FBI file: MIBURN (Mississippi Burning) -- FBI file on Muslim Mosque, Inc. -- FBI file on the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) -- FBI file on the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weatherman Underground Organization -- FBI file on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee -- FBI investigation file on Communist infiltration of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

CIA CREST Database

The Central Intelligence Agency has posted nearly a million declassified documents, totaling nearly 13 million pages, to a searchable CREST online database that is open to the public.

The database includes everything from the daily briefings received by Presidents Nixon and Ford, to reports on unidentified flying objects, to research on magic healers and other potentially supernatural things that were submitted to the CIA for investigation. There are personnel files and estimates of Soviet ballistic missile strength, as well as more eclectic items like a poster from the Buffalo Bill Wax Museum. Documents are generally declassified after 25 years, so material from more recent administrations is not available.


Primary Sources

What Are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are the direct, uninterpreted records of the subject of your research project. As such, a primary source can be almost anything, depending on the subject and purpose of your research. Be creative in thinking of possible relevant primary sources of information on your topic.

Why Use Primary Sources

A primary source is as close as you can get to the event, person, phenomenon, or other subject of your research. But a primary source on its own is likely only a snippet or snapshot of the full picture; thus it is often difficult to interpret on its own. Reference sources and secondary analyses give you a framework for interpreting primary sources. But the real work of research is examining primary sources to test the interpretations, analyses, and views you find in reference and secondary sources. Use primary sources to find evidence that challenges these interpretations, or evidence in favor of one scholar's interpretation over that of another; then posit an interpretation of your own, and look for more primary sources for evidence to confirm or refute your thesis. When you present your conclusions, you will have produced another secondary source to aid others in their research.

Types of Primary Sources:

  • Artifacts: manufactured items such as clothing, furniture, tools, buildings
  • Books: extensive and detailed discussions of a particular topic or set of topics, written by the scholars and researchers who came up with the ideas or discovered the findings
  • First –person accounts: diaries, memoirs, letters, interviews, speeches, etc.
  • Government publications: statistics, court reports, etc.
  • Historical documents: official papers, maps, treaties, etc.
  • Internet resources: see, especially, digitized versions of historical documents
  • Lab reports: experiments, observations, etc.
  • Manuscript collections: collected writings, notes, letters, and other unpublished works
  • Newspapers: some types of articles
  • Recordings: audio, video, photographic, etc.

Finding Primary Sources in the MSU Library Catalog

To find archival and manuscript material held at the MSU Libraries, perform an an "Advanced Keyword" search. In the first box, type your search term(s). In the second box, change "Any Field" to "Subject" and use one of the following:

  • correspondence Use for classes of persons & ethnic groups and individual persons & families) Examples: journalists AND s:correspondence; vietnamese americans AND s:correspondence; garvey, marcus AND s:correspondence
  • diaries Use for individual persons & families. Example: adams, john AND s:diaries
  • personal narratives Use for names of events and wars. Example: s: Holocaust AND s: personal narratives
  • personnel records Use for organizations and military units only. dept. of state AND s:personnel records
  • records and correspondence Use for organizations and groups only. Examples: marine corps AND s:records and correspondenc; Lawyers AND s: records and correspondence
  • archives Use for organizations, individual persons & families. Example: roosevelt, theodore AND s:archives
  • archival resources Use for topics and geographic areas (countries, cities, etc.) Example: women AND s:archival resources
  • manuscripts Example: michigan AND s:manuscripts
  • notebooks, sketchbooks, etc. Example: lin, maya AND s:notebooks, sketchbooks, etc.
  • sources This combination usually produces the most results. Example: s:Indians of North America AND s:sources; police AND s:sources

    Finding Primary Sources in WorldCat or MelCat

    WorldCat is the OCLC Online Union Catalog, containing more than 35 million records describing items owned by MSU Libraries and libraries around the world; each record indicates library holdings. It is produced by the OCLC Online Computer Library Center and describes books, manuscripts, computer data files, maps, computer programs, musical scores, films and slides, newspapers, journals, sound recordings magazines, and videotapes.

    Click the "Archival Materials" box when performing your search. If you do get results, click on the "Libraries" icon to see what library has the material. In almost all cases, you will not be able to get the material through inter-library loan.

    Want to restrict your search to neighboring Michigan Libraries?  Try searching  MelCat.

    Finding Primary Sources via American History and Life (AHL) or Historical Abtracts (HA)

    America History and Life (AHL)  provides access to articles, book reviews, and dissertations in American and Canadian history.   Historical Abstracts (HA) rovides access to articles and dissertations for the rest of the world from 1450 onwards. You can find primary sources material by using a fairly elaborate search strategy.

    A useful command is the "*" wildcard; it takes the place of an indeterminate number of unknown letters. For example, "nurs*" will retrieve: "nurse", "nurses", "nursing," etc.

    Caution: The following search strategy not only will retrieve the actual primary sources but also works about primary sources.

    In a search box, typing:

      DE Diaries will retrieve works by individuals.
      DE Documents for works by organizations.
      DE Letters will retrieve both.


    Archives and Manuscript Collections

    Archive Finder.  Archive Finder brings together ArchivesUSA and the cumulative index to the National Inventory of Documentary Sources in the UK and Ireland (NIDS UK/Ireland), previously available on CD-ROM. ArchivesUSA is a current directory of over 5,500 repositories and more than 161,000 collections of primary source material across the United States. NIDS UK/Ireland is a major reference work that reproduces on microfiche the finding aids to thousands of archive and manuscript collections in libraries and record offices, museums and private collections throughout the UK and Ireland. Used together in Archive Finder, researchers are able to read descriptions of a repository's holdings to determine whether a collection contains material useful to their work as well as find the information they need to contact the repository directly.  Restricted to the MSU community and other subscribers.

    ArchiveNet.  "A search device for websites by archival services at home [i.e., The Netherland & Flanders] and abroad. Archivenet is being updated on a daily basis since 1995. You can make a choice between the main categories The Netherlands, Flanders, world and others. Within the categories The Netherlands and Flanders you can search for place as well as province. The category world is subdivided according to continents."

    Archives Unbound - Federal Response to Radicalism in the 60s.  Organized alphabetically by organization, this collection covers a wide range of viewpoints on political, social, cultural, and economic issues. It sheds light on internal organization, personnel, and activities of some of the most prominent American radical groups and their movements to change American government and society. Sample collections include: COINTELPRO: The Counterintelligence Program of the FBI; FBI File on Abbie Hoffman; FBI File on the Black Panther Party, North Carolina; FBI File on Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers; FBI File on the Fire Bombing and Shooting at Kent State University; FBI Files on Malcolm X; FBI File: MIBURN (Mississippi Burning); FBI File on Muslim Mosque, Inc.; FBI File on the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU); FBI File on the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weatherman Underground Organization; FBI File on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; FBI Investigation File on Communist Infiltration of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

    Archives Unbound - Federal surveillance of the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño"This collection highlights the FBI’s efforts to disrupt the activities of the largest of the Puerto Rican independence parties, Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño, and compromise their effectiveness. In addition, these documents provide an insightful documentary history and analysis of why independence was the second-largest political movement in the island, (after support for commonwealth status), and a real alternative. These documents provide invaluable additions to the recorded history of Puerto Rico."

    The Attica Uprising and Aftermath: Selected Documents from the Office of the Attorney General.  A digital archive devoted to the 1971 Attica Prison Riot. “Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Thomas Ruller, director of the State Archives, on Tuesday announced the unveiling of a new website hosting a digital collection of documents relating to the decades of successive investigations and litigation arising from the 1971 Attica prison uprising and its aftermath. Visitors to the site can search by type of document or by the name of hundreds of principle players in the crisis (“Rockefeller, Nelson A.”) and the litigation that followed.” You can get an overview of the Attica Prison Riot at

    Historical Research in Europe : A Guide to Archives and Libraries.  This database currently has over 5500 records of both print and non-print items. With the majority of Western European and Scandinavian countries covered to date, the project focus is now on library and archival resources for the countries of Eastern Europe added to the European Union in 2004.  Included are all kinds of archival and library resources available in western Europe; thus the scope of the project includes resources useful for researchers studying Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas, as well as for researchers studying Europe. Likewise, "historical" resources are broadly defined to include not only those relevant to the traditional study of history, but also artistic, scientific, and other subjects with a historical dimension.  Courtesy of the University of Wisconsin Madison.

    National Archives of the United Kingdom.  "The Access to Archives database contains catalogues describing archives held locally in England and Wales and dating from the eighth century to the present day....[it] now contains 9.6 million records relating to 8.8 million items held in 403 record offices and other repositories."

    Manuscript Society Information Exchange Database.  Lists collections of manuscripts, documents, and letters held by private individuals throughout the United States. As a result, it is now possible for researchers to have access to primary source material that was previously unknown or unavailable. The database contains a broad range of material national and international in scope.

    National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections.  "The mission of the NUCMC program under the auspices of the Library of Congress is to provide and promote bibliographic access to the nation's documentary heritage. This mission is realized by NUCMC production of cataloging describing archival and manuscript collections held by eligible repositories located throughout the United States and its territories. The program's mission is further realized by the provision of free searching, via NUCMC gateways, of archival and manuscript cataloging in the RLG and OCLC union catalogs."

    'Net, Go: Archival Internet Resources. "This service is an archival "meta index," or index of archival indexes. That is, from here we refer you to the major indexes, lists, and databases of archival resources. From them you can link to almost every archives and archival resource in the metaverse."

    Repositories of Primary Sources.  A listing of over 5000 websites describing holdings of manuscripts, archives, rare books, historical photographs, and other primary sources for the research scholar. All links have been tested for correctness and appropriateness.  Compiled by Terry Abraham, University of Idaho.


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