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Primary Sources: Sound Recordings

Find and use primary sources in your research.

Finding Sound Recordings Online

Sound recordings may be found in subscription databases and on the open web.  A few notable sources include:

American Memory, Library of Congress

Internet Archive

National Public Radio

PennSound

Featured Resource:
Alan Lomax Archive

"Alan Lomax's Massive Archive Goes Online" by Joel Rose, National Public Radio, March 28, 2012

"Folklorist Alan Lomax spent his career documenting folk music traditions from around the world. Now thousands of the songs and interviews he recorded are available for free online, many for the first time. It's part of what Lomax envisioned for the collection — long before the age of the Internet."  Read or listen to the full story on NPR.

Visit the Alan Lomax Archive online.

Oral Histories beyond NYU

Columbia Center for Oral History
The resources page is an excellent place to identify major repositories of oral history collections.

Oral Histories Online
This subscription database from Alexander Street Press provides in-depth indexing to more than 2,700 collections of Oral History in English from around the world.

WorldCat
Using the Advanced search, limit the format to "sound recordings" then search on "oral history" under Keyword to find oral history collections.  Add additional Author or Subject terms to focus results.

Audio Materials / Sound Recordings as Primary Sources

Audio materials include everything from oral histories, to music, to speeches, to radio broadcasts, and testimony and encompass all varieties of recorded sound.  As with other types of sources, it is not just the format of the item that determines whether it is a primary source, but how it is being used.

For example, a radio broadcast of a scientist's explanation of how solar energy works would be considered a secondary source if you are using the text of what is said as evidence for your research.  If, however, you are analyzing different ways to explain solar energy or examining a radio network's science coverage, the broadcast itself would be a primary source.

Interviews and Oral Histories

Interviews and Oral Histories (first-person accounts of lives or events) make excellent primary sources.  Not only are you listening to someone's personal recollections, opinions, or interpretations of events they were directly involved with, you are hearing it in their own voice.  Listening to a person's voice brings you closer to what they are saying than you can get by reading a transcript.  You'll hear accents and inflections and gain a better sense of someone's personality when you hear them speak than when you read what they said.  Consider conducting your own interviews and using them in your research.

Listen to an example from Story Corps.

Broadcasts & Speeches

Audio recordings, whether of music, speeches, radio broadcasts, interviews, testimony, or performances allow you close access to events, people, and movements throughout history.  Recordings related to contemporary and historical events are available in libraries and online through such sources as the Internet Archive and the Library of Congress, to name just two.

Hearing evidence allows you to think about your topic in a new way.    

Recorded Music

You can study music just as you might examine and interpret a novel or painting as a primary source.  Sonic art, soundscapes, and other uses of sound as artistic expression can aslo be considered to be primary sources.

Recording a Phonograh

[Countess Iska Teleki recordin... Digital ID: 1536854. New York Public Library

[Countess Iska Teleki recording phonograph.]  New York Public Library.  MssCol 2703.  Digital ID: 1536854.  Click on photo for full details.

Evaluating Audio

Just as you must carefully evaluate what you read, you must also carefully evaluate what you hear. 

Ask who created the recording and for what purpose.

Who was the intended audience?

Was the sound recording meant to entertain, inform, persuade?

Need Help Getting Started?

Ask a librarian for help.  Contact your subject specialist to find out about useful reference sources, guides to the literature, and databases on your topic.