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Primary Sources

Learn how to find, identify, and evaluate primary sources.

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What is a Primary Source?

A primary source is a document or object that was created at the time of the period under study. It is a first-hand account created by someone who experienced the event or time. 

Examples of primary sources: 

  • Letters 

  • Memoir 

  • Newspaper Articles 

  • Diary 

  • Recordings 

  • Oral History 

  • Survey Data 

  • Photographs 

 

Why use primary sources?

Primary sources are the building blocks of historical research. Historians and history students base their arguments on evidence from primary sources, interpreting and analyzing them to answer historical research questions.

 

Where can you find primary sources?

Many primary sources have been made accessible online by archives, libraries, museums, and historical societies.

It may also be helpful to start with a Google search to find collections and online resources related to your topic. For example, Googling "Primary source AND women's suffrage" will bring up Primary Source Sets on Women's Suffrage from institutions like the Library of Congress, the National Archive, and academic libraries.

Background & "Pre-Research"

When doing research using primary sources, it is important to start by doing some background reading or "pre-research". Use reference sources to learn more about key events, people, laws, and terminology used during the time period you are researching. 

A strong understanding of the time period will also help you consider what types of primary sources you are likely to find that address your topic. Will you need to look for personal materials like letters and diary entries? Would newspapers or other publications from the time addressed your topic?

Reference Sources for Background Information

Database & Online Search Tips

  1. Limit to specific time periods: When searching for primary sources online always remember to use date ranges (usually on the advanced search page) to focus your search.

    • Depending on the time period, remember that it took time for news to get reported or to spread to other parts of the country. It often helps to include a few months after an event to ensure you get results. 

  2. Use primary source keywords to find primary sources:  Use search terms that reflect the types of primary sources you’re looking for, such as: diaries, pamphlets, correspondence, speeches, manuscripts, personal narratives, interviews, firsthand, eyewitness, sources, etc. 
    For example:

    • suffrage AND pamphlets

    • united states and race relations AND sources