Published primary sources in print, on microfilm, and online (subscription databases or open web) are readily available and extremely helpful.
Not only can you use them to access sources without having to visit the library that holds the original materials, but published editions may be annotated as well, offering not just the documents themselves, but scholarship that puts them in context.
The Autobiography of Mark Twain (and accompanying Papers Project), Students for a Democratic Society Papers, Diary of George Templeton Strong, The New-York Historical Society Quarterly (1917-1980) and Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader are just a few examples of the formats of published primary sources that exist.
Archival materials published in books and on microfilm can usually be found by searching local library catalogs and/or WorldCat. These books and microfilmed sources are frequently available for interlibrary loan. So, if you find that an archival collection you would like to use has been microfilmed or published in book form, submit an ILL request and the GC Library will borrow the item for you if we don't already have it in our collection.
Also look for digitized archival materials and other primary sources in subscription databases and on open library websites. In many cases, the digitized collections found in subscription databases were produced from microfilm made of the collection.
Nowadays libraries may skip the step of microfilming collections and go straight to digitizing them instead. These digitized materials may be accessible directly through collection finding aids and/or via a digital portal on the library's website.
When you are onsite at the library that holds an archival collection that has been printed, photocopied, microfilmed, or digitized, you may be required to use the surrogate format rather than the original materials. The collection finding aid will likely note this restriction.
Print, microfilm, and digital -- the typical surrogate formats -- have expanded the reach of primary sources immeasurably and have been tremendously valuable to scholars near and far. However, there is no substitute for consulting primary sources in their original format in the repositories where they are held. So, always seize the opportunity to access original materials when you can.
Looking for a way to help make digitized primary sources more accessible? Check out these volunteer opportunities in the digital humanities:
Every day, more archival material is digitized and made available online to the great benefit of researchers and Digital Humanities scholars everywhere. However, it is important to remember that most archival material is not online. Libraries such as The New-York Historical Society and The New York Public Library have been steadily digitizing collections in their holdings for years, but they still have a long way to go.
The NYPL, for example, holds more than 62,000 linear feet of documents in 11,300 separate archival collections, but has digitized just 636,973 pages of archival material as of June 2022. Work continues, however, and exciting new projects are underway.
And the National Archives, when asked whether their records are on the internet, replied: "A small percentage of our holdings are available online through the ever-growing Online Catalog. Laid side to side, pages in the National Archives' holdings would circle the earth over 57 times!"
Oftentimes the most visually appealing or popular materials are digitized to make them as widely available as possible, which is wonderful for researchers. However, it is worth going beyond readily available digital materials because you may discover fascinating analog sources for your project that are less widely known.
And new and exciting research in the Digital Humanities is expanding knowledge in unexpected ways. Scholars are launching digital projects that analyze texts in ways that were not possible before and discovering connections that are illuminating their fields. See "New York Public Library Invites a Deep Digital Dive," as an example of one library's Digital Humanities efforts.
Just remember, not everything is online...