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Primary Sources Research Guide

Primary Sources Research Guide

What is a primary source?

Primary sources provide raw, unaltered, first-hand evidence of an event or time period.  Primary sources are usually created by people who directly experience an event and then document this experience.  Some examples of primary sources often used in research include: speeches, letters, diaries, interviews, photographs, oral histories, autobiographies, some government documents including hearings, archival materials, artifacts, paintings, some newspaper articles, and more. 

Some disciplines consider primary sources differently than others; for instance, in the sciences experimental results or scientific studies are often presented for the first time in scholarly journal articles or conference papers. Thus, those articles and papers are considered primary sources because they present original information. 

How does a primary source differ from a secondary source?

Primary sources differ from secondary sources because secondary sources interpret or analyze primary sources.  These secondary sources include books, popular magazine and newspaper articles, book reviews, and journal articles.  They provide second-hand information because they are interpreting information gathered from primary sources or review previously published material.  For instance, a book about prairie settlers would be a secondary source; the diaries written by prairie settlers from which the book author gathered information are primary sources.  Some secondary sources may look like primary sources, but are, in fact, secondary sources.  For instance, documentary films often provide archival footage that documents an event first-hand, but these films are often heavily edited and may alter the footage of the original event.  Therefore, some professors do not consider these primary sources.  Always check with your professor if you are unsure whether a source qualifies as a primary source.

Are newspaper articles primary or secondary?

Newspaper articles can be tricky. In some disciplines, like the sciences, newspaper articles are considered secondary sources.  Other disciplines, like History, usually consider newspaper articles primary sources because they're produced during the time period you are studying.  Generally, if a newspaper article provides an original, eyewitness account or an interview, then it is considered a primary source.  If the article also contains additional information gathered from secondary sources, then the article is considered secondary.

Where do I start?

Where do I start finding primary sources?

One of the best places to start finding primary sources include your library's Special Collections Department or Archives.  Also, you can often find primary sources listed in the footnotes, endnotes, or bibliographies of secondary sources.