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Primary Sources in History

This is a guide to finding, using, and evaluating primary sources in the humanities, with an emphasis on research in history.

Definition

There are basically two types of resources: primary sources and secondary sources. Simply put, “Primary sources are those in which the author or creator was a direct observer of the recorded event. Secondary sources are those in which the author is reporting the obervations of others and may be many times removed from the actual event.” (Starko, Alane J., Looking For Data In All the Right Places. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press, 1992, p. 28)

Primary sources include first-hand information from a person who witnessed or participated in an event. For subjects in history, it's FROM the time, not ABOUT the time. A primary source can also be scientific data, statistics, or an official transcript of a government proceeding. Actually, a primary source can be almost anything.

Primary sources are found in a variety of formats, such as: Original documents in archives and libraries; materials reprinted in published sources, such as collections of letters, diaries, autobiographies; microforms; digitized on the web; oral interviews; a piece of art; recordings.

Patrick Rael at Bowdoin College has a good discussion on How to Read a Primary Source (choose section to the left under Reading).

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

There are basically two types of resources: primary sources and secondary sources. Simply put, “Primary sources are those in which the author or creator was a direct observer of the recorded event. Secondary sources are those in which the author is reporting the obervations of others and may be many times removed from the actual event.” (Starko, Alane J., Looking For Data in All the Right Places. Mansfield Center, CT: Creative Learning Press, 1992, p. 28)

Primary sources include first-hand information from a person who witnessed or participated in an event. They are original materials, created at the time of an event or soon thereafter. Primary sources can can also be scientific data, statistics, or an official transcript of a government proceeding; they can be almost anything.  Primary sources are found in a variety of formats, such as original documents in archives and libraries; materials reprinted in published sources, such as collections of letters, diaries, autobiographies; microforms; digitized on the web; recordings.

For subjects in history, it’s From the time, not About the time.

Secondary sources are those in which the author is reporting the observations of others and may be many times removed from the actual event.

These are sources in which the author is reporting the observations of others and might be many times removed from the actual event or written after the fact, with the advantage of hindsight. Secondary sources describe, interpret, analyze, evaluate, explain, or comment on something. Typical examples of secondary sources are: biographies, dictionaries and encyclopedias, handbooks and manuals, histories about a topic, works of criticism and interpretation, textbooks, monographs, bibliographies, and directories.

You want to use secondary sources for background information and to find simple facts. Reading secondary sources is often the quickest and simplest way to find out what is already known about the subject you are studying.

Patrick Rael at Bowdoin College has a good discussion on How to Read a Primary Source and How to Read a Secondary Source (to choose, select from the left column under Reading).

Examples from the Library Catalog

The following are examples of primary sources from Swem Library's library catalog:

  • Images (photographs, films, paintings, video recordings). Example: Heart of Spain : Robert Capa's Photographs of the Spanish Civil War : From the Collection of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía (DP269.15 .C355 1999)
  • Objects (artifacts, tools, weapons, coins, uniforms, jewelry, needlework, tombstones, household items, toys). Example: Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight : An Illustrated History of Weaponry in the Middle Ages (U810 .E34 1988)
  • Audio (oral histories, interviews, popular songs, audio recordings such as speeches). Example: Sir Winston Churchill: A Selection From His Wartime Speeches (Sound recording, Rec. 2148)
  • Statistics (census data, land surveys, maps, blueprints, architectural drawings). Example: A Handbook to Elections in Uttar Pradesh, 1920-1951 (JQ619 .A15 R44)
  • Official records (treaties, parish records, statutes, Congressional debates). Example: Great Britain. Public Record Office. The Complete State Papers Domestic : Series One, 1547-1625 (microfilm)
  • Papers of organizations or societies. Example: Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, 1833-1911: China (microfilm)
  • Printed sources (newspapers and magazine articles contemporary to the event, autobiographies, speeches, research reports, cookbooks, advertisements). Example: “Seven Years of an Officer's Life in India,” Bentley's Miscellany 42 (1857)
  • Private sources (letters, diaries, journals, memoirs). Example: Letters on South America, Comprising Travels on the Banks of the Paraná and Rio de la Plata…1843 (F2815 .R65 1971)
  • Your own (driver’s license, social security card, birth certificate, letters from Mom)--OK, so these aren't in the library catalog, but you get the idea.