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Module 1: What are primary sources?

Examples of primary sources: Oral histories

Oral histories are accounts given by a person of events earlier in their life. Often, they are taken by family members, historians, archivists, or others who interview older people in an attempt to document events and lives that might otherwise be forgotten.

Oral histories are valuable. But when using them as primary sources, it is important to consider that memory is fallible. In the intervening years between the events and the recounting of them, a person may be influenced by others’ accounts as well as books or even movies about the events in question. In general with primary sources, the closer in time to the events that the account is given, the more reliable it is considered to be.

Memoirs and autobiographies

These are personal written accounts of events in the author’s life. There are different levels at which these authors seek to represent the past with complete accuracy, however. Sometimes they may change details or names in order to protect privacy or to make the story more interesting. In general, autobiographies are considered to be more accurate than memoirs, although in either case the author is relying largely on their own memory (as well as perhaps primary sources like diaries and other records) and seeking to write an engaging story while perhaps burnishing their reputation.


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cassette tape

An oral history of John Florio, a 1934 graduate of the University of Illinois , was record on this audio cassette tape in January 2001. This oral history, in which Florio reminisces about his days as an Illini athlete and student, was taken as part of a project of the UIUC Student Life and Culture Archives to preserve the recollections of students who attended UIUC just before and during the Great Depression.

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