Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented.
Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later.
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.
Examples of primary sources include, but are not limited to:
When you analyze a primary source, you are undertaking the most important job of the historian. There is no better way to understand events in the past than by examining the sources--whether journals, newspaper articles, letters, court case records, novels, artworks, music or autobiographies--that people from that period left behind.
There are TWO major steps to take when examining a source.
Step 1: Ask Questions About the Source (ie. where was it created, what was the author's occupation, etc)
Click HERE for a list of questions to ask yourself when investigating or examining a primary source.
Step 2: Find Answers to Your Quesitons
The best place to find answers to basic questions about your source (the who, what, when, where, how) is in BACKGROUND sources, like encyclopedias or textbooks. Wikipedia can often be a great place to start, but Wikipedia, like any other encyclopedia is NOT a scholarly source and should not be used a secondary source in your assignment. These are background resources to help find out the 'facts' on your source.
Click HERE for a list of history of science background resources you can try searching for information on your source.
If you have more complex questions about your source that can't be answered in a background resource, you might have a research question on your hands! Time to do some secondary source research.
These resources can be a great way to find original scientific research that you can analyze as primary sources (ex. a 1935 American Journal of Psychiatry article titled Sexual sterilization - Four years experience in Alberta).
But be warned! These resources will include both primary source literature and secondary source literature. Remember that context matters! If you're not sure if your article is a primary source, read this or email your librarian.