Skip to Main Content

Art History Research & Writing: Primary Sources

Primary Sources

Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later. Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of whether they are available in original format, in microfilm/microfiche, in digital format, or in published format.

Secondary sources interpret and analyze primary sources. Because they are often written significantly after events by parties not directly involved but who have special expertise, they may 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, Paul Goldberger's architectural review of the new Citi Field and Yankee Stadium in New York is a primary source because he is commenting directly on a current event whereas an article surveying the history of New York City stadiums would be considered a secondary source. However, years from now, scholars might look to the survey article as a primary example of key evaluatory architectural principles.

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.”

Arts Librarian

Profile Photo
Heather Gendron
Director, Robert B. Haas Arts Library
Arts Library 112