Skip to Main Content

Primary Sources

Primary sources are documents, artifacts, or data created during the specific time period being studied.

More information about primary sources

Primary sources are documents, artifacts, or data created during the specific time period being studied. Oftentimes, documents from the first publication cycle – newspaper articles, letters, or research notes – are considered primary sources. Different academic disciplines have different definitions of what constitutes a primary source, which can make locating and identifying these sources a bit challenging.

Primary sources in specific disciplines

Primary sources in the Humanities (history, literature, religion) focus on original documents or accounts contemporary to a specific event or an individual’s life. Terms such as “eyewitness” or “firsthand” are also commonly used to describe these sources. Autobiographical accounts written at a later date are also considered primary sources. Letters, diaries, journal entries, public records as well as contemporaneous newspapers articles offer solid examples of this type of primary source. Fictional works such as short stories or novels written during that specific time period constitute primary documents, too.

In the Arts (art, dance, music, theatre) primary sources are as diverse as the various disciplines in the category. They may include paintings, sculpture, prints, performances, video or audio recordings, scripts, or musical scores.

Social Sciences (psychology, sociology, education) place a heavy emphasis on unanalyzed data sets as primary sources. Numerical data sets such as census figures, opinion polls, surveys or interview transcripts constitute this type of raw, uninterpreted data. A researcher’s field notes are also primary sources in the social sciences.

Primary source documents in the Sciences (biology, ecology, chemistry) focus on original research, ideas, or findings published in academic journals. These articles mark the first publication of such research; and they detail the researcher’s methodology and results. Plant or mineral samples and other artifacts are primary sources as well.

Examples of primary sources

  • Diaries or journals (published or unpublished)
  • Letters, correspondence or other personal communications
  • Public documents such as deeds, marriages license or certificates
  • Newspapers and weekly newsmagazines (offering contemporaneous reporting of events)
  • Radio and television transcripts and wire reports
  • Speeches in print or audio formats
  • Court cases
  • Legislative reports, bills and laws
  • Census data
  • Government Documents
  • Maps
  • Art works such as paintings, prints or photographs
  • Artifacts or specimens
  • Interviews or oral histories
  • Works of literature such as fiction, poetry or drama
  • Statistics including opinion polls
  • Sacred Scriptures

What are secondary sources? Tertiary sources?

While primary sources offer a firsthand account, secondary sources are written after the fact. Secondary sources analyze, interpret, explain, or analyze a primary source, event or individual. These resources represent a second publication cycle, tasked with presenting an argument or to persuade the reader. In a sense, they’re telling you what to think. Typically, journal articles are a good example. Criticism and interpretation are key functions of Arts and Humanities secondary sources. Social Sciences secondary sources interpret raw statistical data or provide commentary on social policies. Secondary sources in the Sciences are publications that review research or abstract it.

Tertiary sources organize information with the objective of making the information more accessible. This publication cycle attempts to be factual. Reference works such as dictionaries, encyclopedias and chronologies fall into this category. Indexes and abstracts are tertiary sources designed to help locate material on a specific subject or by a certain person. Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature is a popular index often found in school and public libraries. All in all, the dividing line between secondary and tertiary sources is not always clear, the primary task usually being to single out primary source from other various source types.

Locating primary sources and documents in the library catalog

Primary source materials are part of the Hutchins Library collection of books, journals, magazines and databases. However, primary sources are seldom labeled as primary sources – this type of material must be combed out of the collection at large. This task is not always easy and can be time-consuming.

The Hutchins Libary catalog can facilitate the discovery of certain kinds of primary source material. Simply incorporate terms like as “papers,” “documents,” “sources,” “letters” or “personal narratives” into the catalog keyword and subject searches. An author search can sometimes produce primary sources as well (i.e. books written by the historical figure in question.) However, using the library catalog to effectively locate primary source materials may require a librarian’s assistance and expertise.

Possible KEYWORD searches

  • Slavery personal narratives
  • Vietnam interviews
  • Jefferson letters

Possible SUBJECT HEADING searches

  • Vietnamese Conflict, 1961-1975--Personal narratives
  • Coal miners--Virginia, Southwest--Interviews.
  • Speeches, addresses, etc., American

Possible AUTHOR searches

  • King, Martin Luther
  • Fee, John G.
  • Carter, Jimmy