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How do I Find Primary Sources?: What is a Primary Source?

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Primary Sources Introduction

There are two different types of sources that you will use when doing historical research, primary and secondary sources.

Primary sources are first-hand accounts or documents that have not undergone any sort of interpretation or evaluation. By providing original data about a topic or event, primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to the truth of what actually happened during an event or time period. Primary sources are the evidence left behind by participants or observers.

Secondary sources are materials that offer an interpretation, evaluation, or opinion on data gathered from primary sources. Examples of secondary sources generally include:

  • books
  • scholarly journal articles
  • biographies

The bibliographies in secondary sources are often useful for locating primary source material. If you find an article or book that discusses your research topic, check the bibliography and/or footnotes to identify primary sources that the author used!

Diaries, journals, speeches, interviews, letters, memos, manuscripts and other papers in which individuals describe events in which they were participants or observers.

Memoirs and autobiographies These are generally less reliable since they are usually written long after events occurred and may be distorted by bias, dimming memory or the revised perspective that may come with hindsight. On the other hand, they are sometimes the only source for certain information.

Government and court records Reports, correspondence or other records of organizations or agencies serve as an ongoing record of the activity and thinking of that organization or agency. Many kinds of records (births, deaths, marriages; permits and licenses issued; census data; etc.) document conditions in the society.

Published materials (books, magazine and journal articles, newspaper articles) written at the time of an event or during a time period you are researching. While these are sometimes accounts by participants, in most cases they are written by journalists or other observers.

Photographs, audio recordings and moving pictures or video recordings, documenting what happened.

Artifacts: physical objects, buildings, furniture, tools, appliances and household items, clothing, toys.

Creative works such as novels, poems, music, or songs that reflect the culture of the time period being studied can also be considered primary resources

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