Primary Sources & RMCAD Sketchbook Project

If you were to head to Downtown Denver right now and take a look at the murals that have been recently painted, you are looking at a primary source document. Works of art act as social objects and give us a record for what is happening in the world as much as any written word. 

One local artist’s work, Thomas “Detour” Evans, contains examples of primary sources in the work he has created. His murals mark the tragedies going on during this historic time and commemorate the lives of people like George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Breonna Taylor, Isabella Thallas, and more. His documented work becomes a secondary source when that object has been written about or evaluated, such as being referenced in a news piece about the murals. A secondary source is something that analyzes a primary source, like an article. In general, once you take a step back from the originator of the document, you are entering the world of secondary sources. 

When researching a subject, your instructor may want you to find examples of primary sources to use for reference. That means looking for books, articles, or artwork created by someone living in the period you are researching. There is a reason to look at both primary and secondary sources. An artist’s diary may give great insight into their work, and reviews of an artist’s show can give you an idea of how that artist was received by the public. 

These days, we hope that all of our artists are keeping diaries, making notes, and documenting their work. Documenting your art does more than creating a sense of security and help current and future generations, it also provides critical information in archive form, and establishes a record of value. With that being said, the RMCAD Library currently has a sketchbook project going on. They are offering free sketchbooks to students who want to document these trying, uncertain, and crazy times. When finished, the hope is to catalog those sketchbooks so future researchers will have primary documents to examine. 

For more information about the sketchbook project, or questions about primary and secondary sources, email the RMCAD library at library@rmcad.edu

This article was written by Martha Neth, head of the Learning Commons at RMCAD.