Finding Primary Sources

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What Are Primary Sources?


Primary sources are the first hand evidence left behind by participants or observers at the time of events. 

"Primary sources originate in the time period that historians are studying.  They vary a great deal. They may include personal memoirs, government documents, transcripts of legal proceedings, oral histories and traditions, archaeological and biological evidence, and visual sources like paintings and photographs. " ( Storey, William Kelleher.  Writing History: A guide for Students. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999, p.18).

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. (Primary Sources at Yale:

Examples of Primary and Secondary Sources

Definitions Primary Sources are the first hand evidence left behind by participants or observers at the time of events.  Secondary Sources are materials that digest, analyze, evaluate and interpret information contained within primary sources or other secondary sources.
  • Autobiographies, memoirs, diaries, emails, oral histories
  • Letters, correspondences, eyewitnesses
  • First-hand newspaper and magazine accounts of events
  • Legal cases, treaties
  • Statistics, surveys, opinion polls, scientific data, transcripts
  • Records of organizations and government agencies
  • Original works of literature, art or music
  • Cartoons, postcards, posters
  • Map, photographs, films
  • Objects and artifacts that reflect the time period in which they were created
  • Books, such as biographies (not an autobiography), textbooks, Encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks
  • Articles, such as literature reviews, commentaries, research articles in all subject disciplines
  • Criticism of works of literature, art and music

The categories below are neither rigorously exclusive nor hierarchical. A single primary source may overlap one or more of these categories. Some material may have appeared in print before, edited or unedited.  For instance,  a manuscript may have been printed and published at some point as a book.


1. Printed or Published Text
  • Books and monographs


A monograph is "a systematic and complete treatise on a particular subject" (ALA glossary of library and information science, Chicago: ALA, 1983, p.48), in one or many volumes, complete at the time of publication or published with the intention of being completed at some future date.
  • Serials
    • Magazines and newspapers are periodicals of interest to general readers
A serial is a publication that is usually published at regular, established intervals, with the intention of continuing publication indefinitely. Magazines and newspapers -- often offer the most immediate published accounts of and reactions to historical events. The important thing is to distinguish between material written at the time of an event as a kind of report, and material written much later, as historical analysis.
  • Government documents
Government documents are publications issued by federal, state, municipal and international governments. 
  • Records of organizations and individuals
The minutes, reports, correspondence, etc. of an organization or agency serve as an ongoing record of the activity and thinking of that organization or agency.  There are many kinds of records, such as: births, deaths, marriages certificates; permits and licenses issued; census data; etc. 
2. Manuscripts Documents created by individuals, not as employees or representatives of an organization, are called manuscripts or personal papers. These documents can be either hand-written or typed, varying in length from a single note or letter to a full-length book. Include among other things: personal papers, memoirs, autobiographies, correspondence, diaries, letters, artificial collections, etc.
3. Archives Archival documents may be either personal papers or institutional archives. They could include bulletins, case files, contracts, correspondence, diaries, journals, ledgers, memoirs, memorandums, minutes, photographs, reports, rosters, and videorecordings. 
4. Visual Materials / Artifacts
  • Original art
single paintings, drawings, watercolors, sculpture, architectural drawings, and plans,
  •  Films
  •  Prints
graphic art, etchings, engravings, lithographs, woodcuts, mezzotints, posters, trade cards, artists' prints, and computer-generated graphics
  • Photographs
pictures, picture negatives
  • Physical objects
buildings, furniture, tools, appliances, household items, clothing, etc. 
5. Digital collections Digital collections may have been transferred from their original format to a machine-readable form or, may exist only as electronic resources. Data may be stored on disk, computer tape, CD-ROM or from Internet sites.