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
||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,
- 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.
||Printed or Published
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.
- 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.
are publications issued by federal, state, municipal and
- 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.
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
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.
drawings, watercolors, sculpture, architectural drawings,
||graphic art, etchings,
engravings, lithographs, woodcuts, mezzotints, posters,
trade cards, artists' prints, and computer-generated graphics
tools, appliances, household items, clothing, etc.
||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