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Primary Sources: Identifying Primary Sources

A guide to identifying and locating primary sources.

Kinds of Sources

The sources you use in your research projects are either primary, secondary, or tertiary.

  • Primary sources of information provide first-hand accounts of the events and conditions you are researching. Generally, these sources are created by the witnesses or first recorders of events at the time they occurred.  There are many kinds of primary sources, including diaries, letters, reports, photographs, artifacts (like coins or pottery), creative works (like paintings and sculptures), financial or government records, memos, and newspaper articles (to name just a few types).  Primary sources can also be accounts that were documented later, such as autobiographies, memoirs, interviews, and oral histories.  Depending on what topic and time period you're researching, primary sources can take a variety of forms.  Primary sources are not necessarily better or more reliable than other kinds of sources, since people in the past made just as many mistakes and had just as many biases as modern people!  While secondary and tertiary sources offer the perspective and reflection that only intervening years can provide, primary sources give us invaluable insight into history and make it more approachable, exciting, and real.

  • Secondary sources of information are those were created later by someone who did not experience first-hand or participate in the events or conditions you’re researching. Generally, secondary sources include scholarly books and articles.  Often, secondary source authors use and analyze primary sources to create their secondary works.  When you're looking for secondary sources, it's good to find those that have been published recently.  Our understanding of historical events and conditions changes and evolves over time, so you want to be sure you're getting the latest scholarship on your topic.

  • Tertiary sources of information compile, analyze, and digest secondary sources.  These are usually reference works, like encyclopedias, dictionaries, and textbooks.  Tertiary sources bring together a lot of information into one work.  They can provide a great overview of a topic, though usually not in any depth.

Why?

Why do your professors think primary sources are so important?  Because they provide a window into the past—unfiltered access to the record of artistic, social, scientific, and political thought, produced by people who lived during that period.  Primary sources are often very personal and can give a very real sense of what it was like to be alive  during a long-past age.  Primary sources help us remember that the past was filled with real people who led real lives.

Consider this:

A book about Renaissance gaming is cool . . .

(Click on the book cover to find it in the Library's collection!)

But real people and the real games they played during the Renaissance is cooler!

(These images are from the Library's ArtStor database.)

What?

What qualifies as a primary source for your topic?

It depends!  You need to think about what kinds of sources might be available from the time period you're researching.  For example, you won’t find any photographs of Ancient Rome, but you will find sculptures and reliefs, paintings and frescos, and material culture (coins, objects, tools, etc.).

Primary sources aren't always old and musty, either!  If you're researching something from the 20th century, primary sources might include newspaper articles, interviews with people you know, or your own photographs.  Keep in mind that many creative and art pieces are considered primary sources.  If you're researching comic book culture, a comic book IS your primary source!

Who?

Another way to identify possible primary sources is to ask yourself:

Who was living and creating works during the time period you’re interested in?  You can look at your textbook, or do some background research in a reference database like Credo to find out.  This will give you an idea of whose work you should be looking for.  For instance, if you’re researching Ancient Greece, you might look for the writings of historians like Herodotus and Thucydides.

When?

When is an important question to ask, too.  Keep in mind during your searches that scholars call time periods by different names.  “Medieval period,” “Middle Ages,” and “Dark Ages” all refer to roughly the same time period, so you might need to try all three names as keywords in your searches.  You can search for both “18th-century” and “eighteenth century.”

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