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Types of Sources and Where to Find Them: Primary Sources



Historians and other scholars classify sources as primary or secondary. This distinction is important because it will affect how you understand these sources. In this first video of a 2-part tutorial, we will discuss primary sources.

Primary sources are most often produced around the time of the events you are studying. They reflect what their creator observed or believed about the event. These sources serve as the raw material that you’ll analyze and synthesize in order to answer your research question, and they will form key pieces of evidence in your paper’s argument. Secondary sources, in contrast, provide an interpretation of the past based on primary sources.

This newspaper article is an example of a primary source. It describes a visit Nixon made to the Soviet Union in 1959. It was written the day after by a journalist who witnessed the event, and it reflects what the journalist and his editors thought their readers would care about at the time. Another example is this pamphlet, which compiles legal testimony from a witch trial. It was published in 1646, the same year as the trial it documents. But, given the nature of the topic, you would probably want to research the pamphlet’s author, John Davenport, to determine the reliability of the transcription or what might have motivated him to publish it.

However, you should be aware that there’s nothing inherent in a source that makes it primary or secondary. Instead, its category depends on how you treat it, which in turn depends on your research question. For example, Black Reconstruction in America, written in 1935 by W.E.B. Du Bois, could be used as a secondary source for research about 19th-century America, since Du Bois draws on a range of government reports, biographies, and existing historical narratives in order to make a claim about the past. However, it could also be used as a primary source for research about Du Bois’s life or black intellectual culture during the 1930s.

One of the main challenges of dealing with primary sources is locating them. Many historical documents have never been published, and they may only be available in archives. For example, here is a page from the expense book of a student enrolled in the University of Illinois in 1930. It is a unique document located in the Student Life and Culture Archive here on campus, and it is only accessible to those who can come to the archive in person. This, on the other hand, is a published primary source: a diary, written in 1912, and first published several decades later. Our copy is in the Main Stacks.

Some of these materials, like letters, were not published at the time of creation, but have been subsequently published in a book, or digitized and made available online. For some topics, historical documents might be difficult to find because they have been lost or were never created in the first place. In other cases, the primary sources might exist, but not in English. Therefore, when you begin to formulate a topic, you will want to think about what kinds of evidence will be available to you.

When thinking about how to find or make sense of primary sources, you should ask yourself three questions:

  1. When and where was it created?
  2. Who created it?
  3. For what purpose or audience was it produced?

Depending on the topic and time period that you are studying, you’ll have to look for different kinds of primary sources. For example, if you are interested in the issue of birth control in 20th century America, you can expect to find many primary sources, including:

If you are interested in a topic from a more distant historical time period, such as the status of Jews during the Renaissance, you may have to look harder, but you can still find documents such as:

  • laws
  • novels
  • and pamphlets

If you’re interested in first-person accounts, you’ll want to take a look at sources like:

  • letters
  • diaries
  • autobiographies
  • oral histories
  • literary works
  • or polemical writings

You’ll have to determine if the source is a reliable account, or created with the intention of imposing a particular understanding of an event or situation. Were they created at the time of the events they recount, or were they written many years later? Some sources might make this point of view obvious, whereas others might pretend to be authoritative.

In other cases, you’ll want to think about what kinds of organizations might have created records related to your topic. You might be able to find:

  • statistics
  • government reports
  • legislative documents
  • court records
  • transactions of an association
  • annual reports and financial records
  • or reports of non-governmental organizations.

Again, you’ll want to determine the circumstances of the document’s creation. Was it an internal document, created to gather information, or was it intended to persuade others inside or outside the group to take a certain course of action?

Visual material can also provide a powerful window onto the time period you are studying. For instance, maps not only reveal contemporary political boundaries, but also how people thought of them. Other visual sources include:

Keep in mind that primary sources can have multiple meanings. For example, this 1854 map provides evidence about the 1854 London cholera outbreak, but it also reflects a new understanding of how disease spreads and a concern with illness as a social problem.

You can find published primary sources by using the online catalog, or by searching in a digital collection of historical documents, such as the Gerritsen Collection of Women’s History, Chronicling America, and Empire Online. The History Library maintains a list of these collections on its website.

Remember, though, that these databases will not explicitly categorize the items they list as primary and secondary, and may even contain documents that you might want to use as a secondary source, so you’ll have to use your own judgment. For example, you might be interested in this Dictionary of Women’s Employment for the information it contains about wages, or for the attitudes that it conveys about what kinds of jobs are appropriate for women.

You can also find primary sources by consulting published bibliographies, and by looking at the secondary literature on your topic to see what sources other scholars have used in their research.