What Are Primary Sources?
Note: Academic departments and disciplines define 'primary sources' differently. Check with your instructor if you aren't sure what counts as a primary source for a specific assignment.
With that being said, these are some general characteristics of primary sources:
- Primary sources provide a first-hand account, direct evidence, or original findings on a topic. Primary sources are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented.
- Primary sources are often created at the time the event or condition is occurring (for example, letters or newspaper articles describing current events), but some primary sources are reflections or descriptions of events or conditions that are recorded much later (for example, autobiographies, memoirs, oral histories, and scientific research articles).
- Primary sources are characterized by their content, not format (original, digital, published, etc.). That means, for example, a letter written in 1867 would be a primary source whether you read the original physical letter in an archive, a digital scan of the letter online, or a typed copy of the letter in a published book.
Find Primary Sources Online
Primary sources are increasingly available online as historical societies, museums, and other organizations digitize their primary source collections. Try adding the terms below to your online search:
- "primary sources"
- "oral history"
- "digital library"
Find Primary Sources in Our Library Catalog
Use the Libraries' WorldCat catalog (the main search box on the library homepage) to find primary sources. Just type in your usual search terms and add one of the terms listed below!
- Personal narratives
- Description and travel
- Pictorial works
Library Databases with Primary Source Material
Historical Newspaper Collections
Streaming Video Links
Document Analysis Worksheets
The National Archives provides Document Analysis Worksheets that you can use to better observe and analyze various types of primary sources (e.g., photos, written documents, artifacts, posters, maps, cartoons, videos, and sound recordings) that you are using in your research.