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Finding Primary Sources

Learn what primary sources are and how to find them.

Definitions & Differences

What are Primary and Secondary Sources?

Primary sources are:

  • first-hand accounts of events
  • materials created by participants or witnesses of the event/s under study
  • original records created at the time that events occurred
  • raw data

Secondary sources are:

  • works that discuss a subject, but which are written after the time that the event/s occurred (by someone other than an eyewitness)
  • works that contain explanations/interpretations/analysis/judgments/discussions of past events

Adapted from Memorial University Libraries

Differentiating between Primary and Secondary Sources

 

A primary source is a document that was created at the time of the event or subject you've chosen to study, or by people who were observers of, or participants in that event or topic.

The medium of the primary source can be anything, including written texts, statistics, objects, buildings, films, paintings, cartoons, etc. What makes the source a primary source is when it was made, not what it is.

Books written by scholars about a topic are secondary sources. Historians' introductions to and editorial comments on collections of primary documents are also secondary sources because they're twice removed from the actual event or process you're going to be writing about. So while a historian's introduction to Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle (1906) is a secondary source, the novel itself, written in 1906, is a primary source.

Adapted from "Writing about History" by Elspeth Brown

Examples of Primary Sources

What Are Some Examples of Primary Sources?

 

Official records
Cabinet papers, diplomatic dispatches, legislation and case law, parish records, parliamentary debates, ambassador's reports,  treaties, censuses, and statistics
Published sources
Newspapers, magazines, literature, songs, hyms, advertisements, interviews, speeches, memoirs, autobiographies, pamphlets/treatises, works of art, photographs, television and radio shows
Private sources
Letters, wills, diaries, contracts (marriage, purchase, etc.), home video and audio recordings, receipts, leases, loans, petitions, birth and death certificates

 

Adapted from Memorial University Libraries

Why use...

... Primary Sources?

  • They provide unfiltered access to the record of artistic, social, scientific and political thought and achievement during the specific period under study, produced by people who lived during that period.
  • Primary sources provide the opportunity to witness a piece of history up close, and to see it through the eyes of those who lived it.
  • First-hand accounts of an historic event allow you to form reasoned conclusions based on evidence, and connect primary sources to the context in which they were created, synthesizing information from multiple sources.

... Secondary Sources?

  • Secondary sources complement primary sources: a secondary source can bring clarification and deeper understanding to a primary source.
  • A historian who has expertise in a specific time period can provide contextual information through a secondary source that allows a student to maximize his/her appreciation of the primary source's value.
  • If you are researching a subject that you do not know a lot about, doing background reading in a secondary source can introduce you to some of the primary sources that are relevant to the subject area.

Adapted from the Library of Congress, "Using Primary Sources"