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Finding Primary Sources for Historical Research   Tags: course_guides, history, primary_sources  

How to find primary sources for historical topics
Last Updated: Jul 10, 2015 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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What Is a Primary Source?

When doing historical research, it is important to distinguish between primary and secondary sources:

"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. Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of whether they are available in original format, in microfilm/microfiche, in digital format, or in published format." (What Are Primary Sources? Yale University)

Secondary sources are written by someone who was not present during the event or condition under discussion. Authors of secondary sources use primary sources or other secondary sources to gather their information.

Examples of primary source materials are:

  • diaries
  • letters
  • interviews
  • speeches
  • photographs
  • census records
  • films
  • sound recordings
  • sheet music
  • newspaper or magazine articles written at the time an event occurred by someone who observed or participated in the event.

Not every one of the above materials is always a primary source; each item must be considered individually.

For information on finding secondary sources for history, see the Finding Secondary Sources for Historical Research user guide.

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