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HISTORY: Primary Sources

A primary source is a document or record containing firsthand information or original data on a topic. Primary sources are created contemporaneously with the topic they describe. Examples of primary sources include:

  • Original manuscripts
  • Diaries
  • Memoirs
  • Letters
  • Journals
  • Photographs
  • Drawings
  • Interviews 
  • Government documents 
  • Public records
  • Eyewitness accounts
  • Artifacts

Summary of characteristics: 

  • Original, first-hand account of an event or time period
  • Usually written or made during or close to the event or time period
  • Original, creative writing or works of art
  • Factual, not interpretive

A secondary source is a work that is one step removed from the original source. Secondary sources are created after the fact, and describe, summarize, analyze, or evaluate primary sources. Examples of secondary sources include:

  • Books and scholarly articles
  • Reviews 
  • Critical analyses 
  • Biographical studies
  • Historical studies

 Summary of characteristics:

  • Analyzes and interprets primary sources
  • Second-hand account of an historical event
  • Interprets creative work

If you are unsure of what would be considered a primary source for your particular project, ask your professor for examples. The following is an incomplete list of things that might be considered primary sources by different academic disciplines.

  • Anthropology
    artifact, field notes, fossil, photograph 
  • Art
    architectural model or drawing, building or structure, letter, motion picture, organizational records, painting, personal account, photograph, print, sculpture, sketch book 
  • Biology
    field notes, plant specimen, research report 
  • Economics
    company statistics, consumer survey, data series 
  • Engineering
    building or structure, map, geological survey, patent, schematic drawing, technical report 
  • Government
    government report, interview, letter, news report, personal account, press release, public opinion survey, speech, treaty or international agreement 
  • History
    artifact, diary, government report, interview, letter, map, news report, oral history, organizational records, photograph, speech, work of art 
  • Law
    code, statute, court opinion, legislative report 
  • Literature
    contemporary review, interview, letter, manuscript, personal account, published work
  • Music
    contemporary review, letter, personal account, score, sound recording
  • Psychology
    case study, clinical case report, experimental replication, follow-up study, longitudinal study, treatment outcome study
  • Sociology
    cultural artifact, interview, oral history, organizational records, statistical data, survey

Source: "Primary Sources: What are they?" Lafayette College Library.