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Art History Research at Yale: Primary Sources

Primary v. Secondary Sources

Primary sources present first-hand accounts or direct evidence. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented, and can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later. In the case of artists, this could include studies, sketches, correspondence, and personal papers. 

Secondary sources interpret and analyze primary sources. Because they are often written long afterward by parties not directly involved (but who may have special expertise), they can provide historical context or critical perspectives. Secondary sources routinely include pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources.

Depending on the subject, newspaper and journal articles can fall into both categories. For example, an art critic's review of an exhibition opening is a primary source, because it is commenting directly on a current event; whereas an article discussing an artist's body of works which includes information about that exhibition would be considered a secondary source as it is after the fact.

Primary Sources at Yale

Primary Sources at Yale
Learn about primary sources available at Yale.  Includes an overview of Yale's special collections, galleries, and museums, including the Yale University Art Gallery, Yale Center for British Art, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Lewis Walpole Library, and more.

Primary Sources Beyond Yale

Archive Finder
Archive Finder is a current directory which describes over 220,000 collections of primary source material housed in thousands of repositories across the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland.

ArchiveGrid is a collection of nearly two million archival material descriptions, including records from WorldCat and finding aids harvested from the web. Archival collections held by thousands of libraries, museums, historical societies, and archives are represented in ArchiveGrid.

Artists' Papers Register
A location register of the papers of artists, designers and craftspeople held in publicly accessible collections in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

MoMA Archives
The Museum of Modern Art Archives includes: a) records relevant to the Museum's history (minutes, committee reports, departmental papers, photographs, sound recordings, and videotapes); b) personal papers of curators and directors when relevant to Museum interests or history; c) papers of individuals related to Museum interests, such as Trustees and former staff; d) oral histories; e) twentieth-century primary resource material, including papers, manuscripts, and photographs; f) a photographic archive comprised of tens of thousands of images.

Smithsonian Archives of American Art
Dedicated to collecting, preserving, and providing access to primary sources that document the history of the visual arts in America. Holdings include more than 20 million letters, diaries and scrapbooks of artists, dealers, and collectors; manuscripts of critics and scholars; business and financial records of museums, galleries, schools, and associations; photographs of art world figures and events; sketches and sketchbooks; rare printed material; film, audio and video recordings; and the largest collection of oral histories anywhere on the subject of art.

WorldCat is a database of more than 1 billion records of books and other materials held in more than 10,000 academic, public, special and national libraries around the world. You can use the Advanced Search option to limit your search to “Archival Materials.”