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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.

Why Use Them

  • “My professor says I need to use primary sources.”
  • They are as close as we can get to the event, person, phenomenon, or other subject of your research.
  • Primary sources do not speak for themselves. This is your chance to express your own opinions and interpretations based on the evidence you have assembled.
  • Because primary sources are usually a small piece of a larger picture, you are encouraged to look for additional evidence through research and secondary sources in order to put the primary source in context.

Research is more meaningful when it is founded on authentic evidence, empirical data, and original documents, rather than on others’ interpretations, explanations, and opinions

When to use them

Because a primary source gives only a snippet of the full picture, you should begin with reference sources and other secondary writings that give you a framework for interpreting primary sources.  When you have a good sense of the event, experiment, or study, you are ready to look at primary sources.