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Primary Sources  

Last Updated: Jun 16, 2014 URL: Print Guide

About Primary Sources Print Page

What Are Primary Sources Video


What are Primary Sources

Primary Sources are things that give first-hand or direct information about the past. For the historian, primary sources are the 'nuts and bolts' of their trade, from which all secondary texts are produced. Primary materials include

  • first hand accounts
    • oral records
    • diaries
    • memoirs
    • letters
  • documents
    • correspondence
    • treaties
    • laws
    • speeches
  • images
    • maps
    • photographs
    • drawings
    • paintings
  • data
    • statistics
    • surveys
    • opinion polls
    • scientific data

Using Primary Sources

Using primary sources

A number of issues have to be considered when using primary sources:

  • when was the document produced: was it close to the time and place of the event?
  • why was it produced?
  • for whom was it produced? (for private 'consumption' or for public/propaganda reasons)
  • are there any clues in the document through which the content may be cross-checked?
  • is there any obvious bias? - all documents are biased in some way or another
  • are the values of the writer, inherent in the document, different from those of the reader? (this is going to be more than likely)

Marjie Bloy, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, National University of Singapore


Where to Find Primary Sources

  • In Archives Archives collect, store, preserve, and organize historical documents, letters, photographs, films, maps, and other things. Usually archives are only open to professional historians and students. You have to wear white cotton gloves so that the oils on your hands don't damage the old and delicate paper.
  • In Libraries Large university libraries also have archives and special collections divisions that collect primary sources. Local public or city libraries might have a local history department that collects primary sources that document the history of the local area.
  • In Secondary Sources Photographs, paintings, and copies of original documents are often reproduced in course books and other secondary sources.
  • All Around You Do your parents have photographs from their childhood or from their parents' childhood? Maybe there is a box in your house that has letters that your great-grandfather wrote to your great-grandmother. Or your grandmother's journal. Or clippings from newspapers. Old items of clothing, toys, or games. Have you ever gone to a flea market and looked through boxes of old postcards? 
  • On the Web Many libraries and archives have digitized some of the collections so that anyone anywhere can see them. The next page in this guide has links to some large primary source collections.


The Value of Primary Resources

The value of primary sources

  • they were produced at the same time as the events they describe, so the information they contain is original

  • they were not written separately from the events they documented

  • they rarely contain someone else's view of the events

  • they allow historians to make their own analyses and judgments of the information without having to consider someone else's interpretation and/or opinions

Examples of Primary and Secondary Sources


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