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History: Primary Sources: Definition


Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user wrestlingentropy

Important things to keep in mind:

This guide is NOT a comprehensive list of all existing primary sources, digital or otherwise. You will likely need to do some searching beyond this guide to find primary resources related to your specific topic. This guide is meant to help you learn how to search for primary sources.

Not every primary source will be available online or in digital form. Many sources are still available only in print, microform, or archival format.

(Why isn't everything digitized?? Read this excellent article "Why Don't Archivists Digitize Everything" by Samantha Thompson, an archivist for the Region of Peel Archives (in Brampton, Ontario, Canada) to learn more about the labor and costs involved in digitization.) 

Not every primary source will available in English. Keep this in mind especially when you are working on a world history topic. If you do not read other languages, you may have to frame your topic in ways that will justify using English-language sources.

Not every primary source is lendable through Interlibrary Loan. While many sources (like periodicals on microfilm) are available for lending via Interlibrary, most Special Collections libraries will not lend their materials.

What are primary sources?

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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!

How to Read and Write Like a Historian

Here are some tutorials, created by librarians and historians, that offer tips on reading and writing history.

History Librarian

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Lauren Bellard
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Further reading

Books discussing history research and writing can be found in the D13-D16 call number range.  Several of these are written for students and cover finding and using primary sources.