Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Primary Sources: Home

Learn what primary sources are, where to find them, and how to use them.

Definitions

A Primary Source is an original record such as a document, image, or artifact that provides a first-hand account or direct evidence of a historical event or topic. In other words, original material created or witnessed at the time of the event in question or under study. 

In contrast, a Secondary Source is one created by someone who did not witness or experience first-hand the events in question. Often these provide analysis or interpretation of events and may use or quote from primary sources to support their ideas. 

Searching Tips and Tricks for Primary Sources

  • Add the word "source" to a subject keyword search to find primary sources.
  • Other subject keywords that help indicate primary sources: 
    • Correspondence
    • Diaries
    • Interviews
    • Notebooks
  • You may also try these search terms: 
    • Narratives
    • Oral History
    • Photographs
    • Recordings
    • Archive
  • Look at the bibliography / references of secondary sources on your chosen topic - they generally show what primary sources they used and where they found them.

Evaluating Primary Sources

For tips on evaluating and using primary sources, please see the Society of American Archivists "Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy." 

Examples of Primary Sources vs. Secondary Sources

Primary source examples include: 

  • Diaries
  • Speeches
  • Letters / Correspondence
  • Literary Works (collections, poetry, folklore, mythology, etc.)
  • Articles or essays (historical)
  • Manuscript facsimiles (digitized copies of the original, access-copies of fragile documents, etc.)
  • Autobiographies
  • Oral Histories / Interviews (includes transcriptions of)
  • Government documents
  • Official records (birth, marriage, death, census, etc.)
  • Translations or excerpts of original documents 

Secondary source examples include:

  • Books or articles that interpret or provide analysis of events (histories, biographies, literary criticisms, etc.)
  • Reviews of other works (film reviews, book reviews, etc.)
  • Documentary films (generally presenting an interpretation of events, individuals, or ideas)
  • Reviews of laws and legislations (political analyses and commentaries)

Books on Using Primary Sources