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HIS 101 - Introduction to Western Civilization I: What are Primary Sources?

Also known as...

What are some other names for primary sources?

Archive/Archives

Manuscripts

Papers

Records

Historical Documents

Original Records/Documents

Primary sources come in many different formats.  They can include:

Newspapers written at the time of the event

Diaries or journals

Correspondence (letters)

Oral history, interviews

Photographs

Artwork and sketches

Speeches

Manuscripts, or drafts, of a literary person's writings, such as novels or poems

Official records of a business, including financial ledgers

Maps

 

Find Primary Sources at 
Ancient & Medieval History Online

 

 

 

 

What is a Primary Source?

Primary Sources are the raw materials of history.  They are unique materials that are created at the time of a historical event that serve as proof of historical facts.  

Systeme of the World in Four Dialogues

 

A Primary Source provides firsthand evidence about a historical event or period in which the creator of the source was an actual participant in or a contemporary of a historical moment.

The purpose of Primary Sources is to capture the words, the thoughts and the intentions of the past.  Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during a historical event or time period.

Primary Sources present information in its original form.  They are unfiltered materials; the information is not interpreted by someone who was not a witness to the event. 

Primary sources can be used to determine how we know about historical events, or cultural trends.  How do we know about a moment once it is passed?  By the evidence it leaves behind.

Ptolemy, Copernicus, Galileus; Thomas Salusbury (translation), 1661. The systeme of the world in four dialogues.  Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. ARTSTOR E2.12Art_roll182G_frame22.                                      

Why are Primary Sources Important for my Research?

If you're a history student, or in any course where your research must be based on historical evidence, you need to know how to find primary sources and how to effectively use the information they provide.  By using primary sources you can create your own interpretation about an event in history, or you can create new knowledge about the event.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

Thanks to Laura Smith, Archivist at the University of Connecticut Libraries for primary sources information.

What is NOT a Primary Source?

It is often confusing to determine if something is a primary source.  Materials that are NOT primary sources include:

Books written after a historical event by someone who was not involved in the event.  Books are considered Secondary Sources.

An interview with someone who has an opinion or is knowledgeable about a historical event, even if that person is an expert or a historian on the event. 

Statistics compiled about a historical event (for example, a tally of the number of dead in a battle)

Encyclopedia entries

 

Secondary Sources

Secondary Sources are created when Primary Sources are analyzed and summed up.  Books, articles, encyclopedia entries, essays are secondary sources -- anything that is not the unfiltered representation of the subject of the writing.