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Primary Sources - History: General Research Guide: Introduction

This guide is for students seeking original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories.

Making the Best Use of Primary Sources in Research

The follow sources provide guidance in identifying, using, and analyzing primary sources.

What do primary sources include?

Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories. Primary sources may include:

·     Letters

·     Manuscripts

·     Diaries

·     Journals

·     Newspapers

·     Speeches

·     Interviews

·     Memoirs

·     Documents produced by government agencies such as Congress or the Office of the President

·     Photographs

·     Audio recordings

·     Moving pictures or video recordings

·     Research data

·     Objects or artifacts such as works of art or ancient roads buildings tools and weapons

These sources serve as the raw material to interpret the past, and when they are used along with previous interpretations by historians, they provide the resources necessary for current historical research.

Primary Sources

A primary source is one that is contemporary to the events you are studying. Examples include letters, diaries, photographs, speeches, and maps. Articles published in newspapers written at the same time as the events you are researching can be used as primary sources. 

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Primary sources

Here's an example of a primary source

This is a primary source of a campaign spot for John F. Kennedy during the 1960 presidential election campaign. It would be an excellent resource if you were talking about campaign strategies or the impact of television on the 1960 election.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary sources are the raw materials of historical research - they are the documents or artifacts closest to the topic of investigation. Often they are created during the time period which is being studied (correspondence, diaries, newspapers, government documents, art) but they can also be produced later by eyewitnesses or participants (memoirs, oral histories). You may find primary sources in their original format (usually in an archive) or reproduced in a variety of ways: books, microfilm, digital, etc.

In contrast...

Secondary sources are interpretations of events written after an examination of primary sources and usually other secondary sources, such as books and journal articles.

When you write a research paper, you are creating a secondary source!

The UC San Diego Social Sciences & Humanities Library created this 3 minute video to explain the difference between primary and secondary sources.

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The Primary Sources LibGuide was originally created by Amy Bursi and revised byWesley Stewart and is now maintained by Pat Ziebart.