Primary Source Material in the Public Library

documents libraryYou may be tempted to keep older history materials, such as those written during the time the event was happening, because they are “important” or as valuable primary source material. Here’s the thing about primary sources: they are valuable and important; crucial to good research, even. Here’s the other thing about primary sources: they rarely belong in your average neighborhood public library.  Why not? I can hear you shaking your heads! Why on earth would a public library weed primary source material?

If your public library’s mission includes a statement about archiving and preserving, then yes, primary sources are for you! If your public library’s mission involves providing college or professional-level research materials, then yes, primary sources are for you as well! For everyone else, whose public library missions are to support the educational, entertainment, and life-long learning needs of the community through popular materials and programming (for example), primary sources are not for you. You’ll be better off with books that put history in its proper context: the past.

Public libraries can serve the research needs of K-12 and maybe even community college students, as well as interested laypeople, through popular history books written in the last decade or so. Our public library customers are not doing deep historiography research requiring them to put their hands on primary source material. (And if they are, they can easily be referred to a library whose mission is to provide that kind of research material.)

And by the way, “preserving” does not mean keeping dusty volumes on shelves forever. It involves climate control and white gloves. You’re not doing the books, or society, any favors by piling primary sources in back rooms or cramming them into overfull shelves “in case someone needs them.” You’re not preserving anything. You’re actually damaging them, spreading mold, and encouraging dust.

There are plenty of good reasons why public library patrons might be interested in primary source material, but they rarely need it in the form of a book. The beauty of digitization means that diaries, speeches, plays, manuscripts, maps, and artwork are widely available to anyone, anywhere, any time! If Mr. Jones, who loves to read about history, wants to read the Emancipation Proclamation, or Susan B. Anthony’s speech on women’s right to vote, or Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech to Yankees fans, I can put copies of those documents in his hands in seconds! I can even get audio copies sometimes. ( is great, you guys!)

Here are some great links to digitized primary source material:

What about people in areas of the country without the internet? Yes, they do exist! Those may be the areas where primary sources are more appropriate on public library shelves, depending on their building’s organization, structure, size, staffing, etc. If they can’t manage to keep these materials appropriately stored or don’t have the space, they should consider sending patrons to their state library, a local university, or even special libraries or museums where appropriate. Perhaps locally-relevant primary sources could be kept at City Hall, in the county clerk’s office, at the local historical society, or even at a school, church, or service organization hall.  It is better to refer to an institution that exists to archive and preserve primary sources, or at the very least one that can store or display them appropriately, than to handle them badly. Damaged primary sources help no one. Even closed-stacks-by-appointment-only is a better service than randomly interfiled primary sources on too-full shelves.

We’re all ears for other ideas on this subject! Let us know what you think!



  1. Oh, my goodness, A-MEN!

    I might have to print this out for the next patron who complains to me about the “young people with no sense of history” who do our de-selection. (N.b., I’m the youngest on our staff by a generation, and I’ve been working in libraries since I was a teenager. In 1997.)

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