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Locate core research resources in history

Methods for Finding a Primary Source

Primary Source Defined

Primary sources are most often produced around the time of the events you are studying. A primary source is firsthand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic, an event, a person's life, original work of literature, or historical fact.  It consists of original raw material that has not been filtered through interpretation, evaluation or any type of commentary. They reflect what their creator observed or believed about the event. Primary sources are usually the first formal appearance of results and offer an immediate picture of the topic under investigation.

Secondary sources, in contrast, provide an interpretation of the past based on primary sources. A secondary source is information about primary, or original information, which usually has been modified, selected, or rearranged after the fact, for a specific purpose or audience.  It can be a description, an interpretation, an analysis, a commentary and an evaluation of an historical event or phenomenon, or the original writing of an author.

However, you should be aware that there’s nothing inherent in a source that makes it primary or secondary. Instead, its category depends on how you treat it, which in turn depends on your research question.

Primary Resource Types and Discovery

Depending on the topic and time period that you are studying, you’ll have to look for different kinds of primary sources. For example, if you are interested in the issue of birth control in 20th century America, you can expect to find many primary sources, including:

  • court cases
  • legislative documents
  • newspaper articles
  • and letters

If you are interested in a topic from a more distant historical time period, such as the status of Jews during the Renaissance, you may have to look harder, but you can still find documents such as:

  • laws
  • novels
  • and pamphlets

If you’re interested in first-person accounts, you’ll want to take a look at sources like:

  • letters
  • diaries
  • autobiographies
  • oral histories
  • literary works
  • poetry
  • song lyrics

You’ll have to determine if the source is a reliable account, or created with the intention of imposing a particular understanding of an event or situation. Were they created at the time of the events they recount, or were they written many years later? Some sources might make this point of view obvious, whereas others might pretend to be authoritative.

In other cases, you’ll want to think about what kinds of organizations might have created records related to your topic. You might be able to find:

  • statistics like census data
  • government reports
  • legislative documents
  • court records
  • transactions of an association
  • annual reports and financial records
  • or reports of non-governmental organizations.

Again, you’ll want to determine the circumstances of the document’s creation. Was it an internal document, created to gather information, or was it intended to persuade others inside or outside the group to take a certain course of action?

Visual material can also provide a powerful window onto the time period you are studying. For instance, maps not only reveal contemporary political boundaries, but also how people thought of them. Other visual sources include:

  • photographs
  • posters
  • advertisements
  • illustrations
  • cartoons
  • drawings or sketches
  • travel narratives
  • and motion pictures

You can also find primary sources by consulting published bibliographies, and by looking at the secondary literature on your topic to see what sources other scholars have used in their research.

Citing Primary Sources