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History: Primary Sources

This guide can assist with research in history and related topics.

Primary, Secondary & Tertiary

Learn the differences between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

Access Video Tutorial: Primary, Secondary & Tertiary Sources

What are primary sources?

Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence of an event or time period. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when events or conditions are occurring. Primary sources can include:

autobiographies and memoirs
oral histories & interviews
historic sites
speeches & addresses
letters & newspapers from time of event

What are secondary sources?

Secondary sources use primary sources to analyze and interpret history. Instead of first-hand testimony, secondary sources are removed from witnessing the actual event or time period. Secondary sources can include:

books & book reviews
essays & anthologies
critical studies
analysis articles
documentary films

Primary Source Examples

Signing of the Declaration of Independence
"Signing of the Declaration of Independence".
Suffering From The Plague
Suffering From The Plague. Library of Congress. Prints and Photographs Division.

Analyzing Primary Sources

The resources below can help with analyzing primary sources in history:

Primary Sources in History

Learn the characteristics of a primary source and the importance of using these resources in history research.

"What's the difference between Primary and Secondary Sources in History?" The Medieval Historian

Finding Primary Sources - Library Databases

Many of the Library databases include primary sources and have a filter to limit search results. The Library has a nice collection of both print and online anthologies of primary sources. Popular collections include:

Finding Primary Sources - Online

Primary sources can be found in libraries, archives, museums, agencies, and many other institutions. Popular collections include:

Searching Online

For better online results, use your topic, time period, and add a type of primary source:

suffrage movement and speech and "primary source"

roman empire and documents and "primary source"

world war i and diaries and "primary source"

industrial revolution and diary

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