Primary Sources

Using Primary Sources

  • Primary Source Path Finder
  • Primary and Secondary Sources for Science
  • Primary Sources Learning Activity

    What are Primary Sources?

    Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories. Primary sources may include letters, manuscripts, diaries, journals, newspapers, speeches, interviews, memoirs, documents produced by government agencies such as Congress or the Office of the President, photographs, audio recordings, moving pictures or video recordings, research data, and objects or artifacts such as works of art or ancient roads, buildings, tools, and weapons. These sources serve as the raw material to interpret the past, and when they are used along with previous interpretations by historians, they provide the resources necessary for historical research.
  • Finding Primary Sources on the Web

    • Consult major collections of primary sources
      The following reputable sites link to thousands of primary sources.
      • American Memory: Historical Collections for the National Digital Library 
      • Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy 
      • EuroDocs: Western European Primary Historical Documents 
      • Gallica: Digital Library of the National Library of France 
      • Making of America: 19th c. books and magazines 
    • Use a search engine
      Search engines are useful when you are researching a narrow topic or trying to locate a specific document. When searching, use specific terms rather than broad terms. For example search for the "emancipation proclamation" not just "slavery," search for the "battle of chancellorsville" not "civil war." Some popular search engines are:
  • Finding photographs and other non-text sources
    Going to a major collection of photographs is the best way to find a historic image. Also, use a search engine to try a topic search, such “Eiffel Tower” or “Chingis Khan” or “Van Gogh and wheat fields” to find photos, drawings or reproductions of paintings. Some major collections include:

    Evaluating Primary Source Web Sites

    Before relying on the information provided by a website, examine and understand the purpose of the website. While the purpose might not affect the accuracy of the primary source material it contains, it might indicate that the material has been altered or manipulated in some way to change or influence its meaning. Sometimes sites use primary source material to persuade the reader to a particular point of view, distorting the contents in obvious or subtle ways. Also, sites can use primary source material haphazardly, without appropriately choosing, inspecting, or citing the work.

    In general, look for websites with a non-biased, balanced approach to presenting sources. Websites produced by educational or governmental institution often are more reliable than personal websites, but government sites may be subject to propaganda.

    • Who is responsible for the website? Hints from URLs
      Many URLs (Uniform Resource Locator or web site address) include the name and type of organization sponsoring the webpage. The 3-letter domain codes and 2-letter country codes provide hints on the type of organization. Common domain codes are:

      Domain Sample Address
      .edu = educational institution
      .gov = US government site
      .org = organization or association
      .com = commercial site
      .museum = museum
      .net = personal or other site
      • Who is responsible for the website? Check for an Author
        Look for the name of the author or organization responsible for the page. Look for the following information:
        • Credentials -- who is the author or organization and what sort of qualifications do they have?
        • Contact address -- is an email or some other contact information given?
        • "About" link -- is there an "about," "background," or "philosophy" link that provides author or organizational information?
      • Is there a clear purpose or reason for this site?
        Websites can be created for a variety of purposes: to disseminate information, provide access to collections, support teaching, sell products, persuade, etc. Discovering the purpose can help determine the reliability of the site and the information it provides.

        Some pages explicitly state their purpose, others do not. To find information about the purpose:

        • Check for an "about" link -- these links often provide some information about the purpose of the site.
        • Find the homepage for the site -- sometimes page includes the "about" link or other clues on the purpose of the organization sponsoring the site.
        • Look for an agenda -- are documents slanted in some way to persuade you?. If the purpose of the website is to persuade, you should examine the material very closely before accepting it as fact.

      Citing Sources

      It is important to provide complete information about your primary source whether found in a printed source or online. The basic elements to include in a citation for a published print source are: author of the document, title of the document, title of the book if different from the document, name of editor or author of the book, place of publication, publisher, year, and page numbers. The basic elements to include in a citation for an online source are: author of the document, title of the document, title of the web site, author or producer of the web site, url, date (if given) and date accessed. Various style formats such as Chicago, MLA and APA put these elements in different order using different conventions. See the following web sites for further information and examples.