Collection Highlights

Image of people kissing with Human Sexuality Collection written on it in a circle

Human Sexuality Collection

Photo credit: Jessica Tanzer ("The Box", 1990).

Examples of Primary Sources

What Are Primary Sources?

What are primary sources?

When researchers distinguish between primary and secondary sources, they're usually referring to the status of a particular piece of evidence being used to support an argument. Calling an item a "primary source" does not mean that the perspective presented by it is automatically true or accurate; rather, a "primary source" is an item that is a source of information about an event, institution, or person and that was also part of the very event, institution, or life being studied.

For instance, personal letters, office memos, minutes of a meeting, scrapbooks and photo albums, legal documents, budget and planning documents, and home movies are often reflections of actual moments in people's lives or of an organization's activities for a day. Such documents were created to serve some other purpose than communicating with a researcher. Frequently, primary sources are unpublished and from a person's own voice.

Published works can also be used as primary sources, since what counts as a primary source is also determined by what questions you're asking. If you're examining the subjective experience of AIDS, for example, the personal letters of persons with AIDS would count as primary sources. If you were examining the media coverage of AIDS, however, published news articles which discussed AIDS would count as primary sources.

As another example, if you're examining the experience of creating early gay community organizations, the personal letters of gay community organizers would be an important primary source. If you were examining how those gay organizations worked in the public arena, however, published press releases, newsletters, and legislative reports would count as primary sources.

In contrast to primary sources, secondary sources are interpretations that come out of an analysis of patterns and differences that appear in primary sources and their contexts. The author of a secondary source is usually focusing on a topic and intending to communicate with researchers. A secondary source will use primary sources as its foundation and examine those primary sources in order to find meaningful relationships among the different perspectives and understandings found in those primary documents.

In essence, primary sources are the basic materials from which history is written.

What does the Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell hold?

The Human Sexuality Collection contains items that have value as primary sources in the study of sexuality. Formats include manuscripts, rare books and periodicals, and audio-visual material. Since 1988, the HSC has been protecting and providing a better historical record of sexuality, one that includes historical changes in sexual and gender identities, the politics of pornography, and controversial and suppressed topics that have been left out of the historical record.

The goal of the Library's efforts with the Human Sexuality Collection is to encourage the study of sexuality and sexual politics by preserving primary sources that too often are lost. Our attention goes particularly to groups that are excluded from mainstream culture. Through our collecting efforts, we seek to document historical shifts in the social construction of sexuality, primarily in American history from the 19th century onward. We focus on lesbian and gay history and the politics of pornography, both at the national level. Books date mostly from the mid-1800s on; manuscripts and periodicals date mostly from the 1950s on; and audio-visual materials date mostly from the 1970s on. The core of the collection came from the Mariposa Education and Research Foundation.

We would particularly like to add more sources on lesbian, gay, and bisexual lives before the 1970s, transgendered people's lives and activism, current LGBT families, the activism of LGBT people of color, national LGBT politics and the impact of AIDS on LGBT communities, feminist views of pornography, sexuality and censorship, and changing views of weddings and marriage.

Below are links to information about and listings of segments of the HSC:

Finding a Specific Item

Your background research may make you aware of a specific book title, person's papers, or kind of record you hope to find in Cornell's Human Sexuality Collection. To see if we do have the sources you seek, try these suggestions:

  • If you are looking for a specific book, periodical, or manuscript collection, try searching Cornell's online catalog. There you will find basic descriptions of almost everything in the Human Sexuality Collection, including links to more detailed guides for certain manuscript collections. To limit a key word search to manuscript collections, add "u.fmt." to the search. When looking at manuscript records in the Cornell online catalog, type "long" to see the most complete descriptions of the records.
  • Please feel free to visit the reference desk in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections and talk to a reference librarian for help. You can also email.
  • Some published items can be found in other units of the Cornell University Library system. Those items may circulate (you can check them out if you have a Cornell library card). 

How do I find primary resources on sexuality beyond Cornell's Human Sexuality Collection?

Items in Cornell's Human Sexuality Collection were acquired principally because of their significance to the study of sexuality, but they may also be relevant to other subjects of inquiry. Likewise, items throughout the rest of the Rare and Manuscript Collections that were collected for other reasons may have relevance to the study of sexuality. Many family and individual papers contain primary source material on heterosexuality, including dating, spouse selection, marriage, and other topics. For more about this, see "Sexuality and Gender Studies."

The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction is another extensive collection of primary sources on various aspects of sexuality.

For lesbian or gay topics, browse Lavender Legacies, to see if another archive may have primary sources relevant to your topic. Lavender Legacies is an index of U.S. and Canadian archives compiled by the Lesbian and Gay Archives Roundtable of the Society of American Archivists.

Resources about lesbian history and links to other lesbian history resources can be found at the Lesbian History Project.

In addition, reference librarians can assist you in searching for further archival and rare book repositories than may contain materials valuable to your research.