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Primary Sources

What is a Primary Source

A primary source is a document or item created at the time of an event, or shortly thereafter, by participants. The event can be large, World War II, or small, a business transaction. Items can be letters, diaries, government documents, newspaper articles, art or music, memoirs and oral histories. Primary sources can be found in the original format, generally in archives, or reproduced in books, microfilm, digitally.

Secondary sources are materials created later by researchers analyzing and interpreting the primary sources to produce books, journal articles, digital history sites.  

Why use primary sources for your research

Being able to interpret primary source material is not just a skill for history students. Lawyers, social workers, teachers, and reporters can all benefit from analyzing these unique items of our past. Using primary sources will help you as a researcher come to your own conclusions about a historical event and add your voice to the academic conversation. It is your job as a scholar to provide the context for the source, whether document or artifact.   

For help analyzing a primary source, below is a worksheet reviewing the "6 Cs of Primary Source Analysis," which includes content, citation, context, connections, communication, and conclusions. 

Finding primary sources

A great place to find primary sources is in the secondary sources you are already using, books or journal articles, discussing events. The bibliography, footnotes and end notes will list all the primary sources the author used in their research. 

You can find digitized primary sources in online archives and special collections libraries.  

Most primary sources are not digitized meaning researchers will need to visit the libraries, historical societies, or institutions that own the materials.