Primary Sources

By Mary Scanlon and Ellen Daugman

Primary sources can enrich and inform a research paper or project; they offer a unique perspective on an event, situation or person. These sources created during or very near in time to an event, provide unfiltered, first-hand descriptions that are absent from purely secondary and other sources. These resources may be found in archives, newspapers, diaries, photographs, letters and diaries to name a few.

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this chapter, the student will be able to:

  1. Define and describe a primary source
  2. Name and describe the benefits and limitations of primary sources
  3. Compare and contrast primary and secondary sources
  4. Identify different creators of primary sources
  5. Identify and create effective search strategies for primary sources in several different resource types

Definitions of Primary Sources vs. Secondary Sources

Primary sources are commonly defined as first-hand accounts, contemporary records, or original documents that offer records of events or phenomena without retrospective interpretation, evaluation, or analysis. They are usually written or created close in time to the events themselves and consequently reflect the perspectives of participants or observers.

By contrast, secondary sources analyze, explain, interpret, review, describe, or summarizeprimary and other secondary sources. Secondary sources offer a retrospective vantage point, removed to some degree from the original event or phenomenon. They are frequently written with an analytical or argumentative purpose, contributing to the scholarly debate or conversation about a research topic. And they are usually published in the form of journal articles, books, or other formats, thereby appearing second in the publication cycle.

The types of materials that may be regarded as primary or secondary sources will vary by subject disciplines or the contexts in which they are used.


Primary sources are first-hand accounts that have been created very near in time to the situation or events they describe. When created by individuals, they can be emotional, biased and unfiltered. They are in the moment; this is their strength. They lack the rational, analytic perspective of secondary sources: resources written after the fact by individuals who have no emotional connection to the event. For example, consider a soldier’s letter recounting the events of a long and bloody battle; contrast this with a textbook description of that same battle. The former might include descriptions of the soldier’s fear, the sounds of cannon fire and wounded men’s screams, and the smell of gun powder. The textbook version might, instead, talk about troop strength and location, types of equipment used, number of casualties, and the outcome in terms of which side won the battle. The former lets the viewer see, hear and feel what it was like to be in the situation and suffer terrible loss afterwards; the latter example is more objective and emotionally removed from the situation.

Timing is an important parameter to consider when deciding if a source is primary. To be primary, it should have been created in the moment or very near to the actual event.

Benefits and Limitations of Using Primary Sources

As a consequence of proximity in time when primary sources are created, they permit researchers to come as close as possible to historical time periods and events, or to objective data, without intervening layers or filters of subsequent scholarly interpretation and analysis. However, due to the subjective aspects of some types of primary sources (particularly personal writings such as letters, diaries, or autobiographies), these sources may reflect bias, limited range of awareness, revised perspectives, and fading memory and recollections.

Discipline-Based Rationales for Utilizing Primary Sources


Primary sources constitute an important research tool for historians, but other disciplines utilize these resources as well. In the humanities, the impetus for research into historical context and the subsequent utilization of primary sources derives from a critical approach known as New Historicism. Articulated by Early Modern (Renaissance) scholar Stephen Greenblatt in a seminal essay published in 1982, “The Forms of Power and the Power of Forms in the Renaissance” (Greenblatt, 1982, pp. 1-2),this approach argues that creative works should be regarded not as self-contained and isolated artifacts, but rather as the products of various social, cultural, and political forces that form a historical horizon against which a literary or other artistic work should be considered. Scholarly work in various fields, such as literary studies, or visual and performing arts, often involves research into historical context.

Primary source databases facilitate this avenue of historical research, but frequently are unique and challenging in their diversity of content, structure, and features. Some of these include EEBO/Early Books Online, ECCO/Eighteenth Century Collections Online, ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Times Digital Archive, and African American Newspapers

Social Sciences

In the social sciences, primary sources are equally valuable, but their sources may be even more scattered than those used by the humanities. The use of demographic and economic data can strengthen or defend an assertion or thesis; document a situation; demonstrate a trend; illustrate an event; and add interest to a paper. For example: opinion polls can reveal a society’s state of mind; the use of photographs and maps can illustrate an event or biography in ways text cannot; and company and industry statistics are invaluable when evaluating either. Many data documenting the economy, industry, education, health care, and populations are gathered and reported by executive branch agencies of the Federal Government; most of these data are freely accessible at these agencies’ web sites. Examples include: data on high school graduation rates from the Department of Education; incarceration rates by race at the Department of Justice. The Smithsonian Institute, the Library of Congress and executive branch agencies provide photographs, maps and other graphical elements. Other data that are freely available are the annual reports and financial statements of publicly-traded companies; these can be found on the company’s website or the financial statements can be found at the Securities and Exchange Commission ( Some primary sources are available by subscription; LexisNexis Congressional provides access to the transcripts of expert testimony gathered at Congressional committee hearings as well as reports, maps, treaties and other documents.

Examples of Primary Sources Across the Disciplines

Primary sources encompass a broad range of materials. These include letters or correspondence, diaries or journals, creative and artistic works (literature, music, art), speeches or interviews, and autobiographies or memoirs. In addition, they may include research data sets, surveys or polls, statistics, photographs or images, newspaper accounts, records of organizations or agencies (including governmental and international bodies), relics or artifacts, and audio or video recordings.

As an example, the following letter written by President Lincoln advocates that the dependents of both black and white soldiers should receive equal treatment; it is available from the online American Memory project of the Library of Congress. If a student were writing a paper in a class on American history, or the history of race relations in America, and was researching Lincoln’s attitudes toward African Americans, this letter would offer direct, first-hand evidence of his feelings on the matter.

Figure 1.  Letter from President Lincoln to Charles Sumner, May 19, 1864.

Figure 1. Letter from President Lincoln to Charles Sumner, May 19, 1864. Source: Library of Congress, American Memory Project.


Format Issues

Format, whether physical or digital, has become less important as a defining characteristic of primary source materials . Primary sources such as letters or diaries do not necessarily exist exclusively as handwritten manuscripts:such documents may be digitized and available as online resources, or they may be compiled and published as books or as briefer journal articles. Similarly, early print materials, whether books or historical newspapers and magazines, may be reprinted in book or journal form, filmed in microform collections, or, increasingly, digitized for Internet access. Context is an important clue, and place in time is an important factor. For instance, 16th century books written as definitive texts in their time on such topics as theology, virtuous conduct, regicide, or witchcraft are now considered primary sources because of their remote placement in time, and are examined by researchers for the contextual perspectives they provide for artistic works created in the same time period.

Primary sources may include a broad range of formats, and are created close in time to the events they record, despite the fact that their publication might come much later. They may include newspaper and magazine articles written shortly after the fact, recounting events and phenomena, but not providing retrospective analysis. Thus, a scholarly article about the American Civil War, published in an academic journal such as the Journal of Southern History, would be a secondary source, but a diary written by a soldier during the Civil War, whether in its original manuscript form or published subsequently in book form, would be a primary source.

Creators of Primary Sources

Most frequently, individuals are the expected creators or authors of primary sources and they do indeed create many types of them: journals, letters, diaries, photographs, works of art, music and literature. They are, however, not the only source; companies, organizations and institutions also create primary documents. Any item generated by one of these organizations can be considered primary. A company’s annual report is an example of a primary source, as is the transcript of a Congressional committee hearing or a report from an executive branch agency, such as the Department of Labor. When no individual author is identified, the organization is considered the author. The population or manufacturing census from 1860 would be considered a primary document for a paper on the economic or demographic situation immediately preceding the Civil War. When determining whether a source is primary, context and timing are as important as the author in making a decision.

Search Strategies

There are multiple research strategies and resources by which primary sources can be located and accessed.

  • Bibliographies and research guides may list primary as well as secondary materials; check the table of contents to locate these portions of such research guides.
  • Books and journal articles often cite primary sources consulted by the author in the course of carrying out research and supporting or illustrating an argument.
  • Newspaper and other periodical databases may cover a specific time period or a particular publication format. Such specialized subscription databases (available through libraries) may exclusively provide access to primary source texts or resources, including diaries or early books. These databases often provide page images so that the original format, font, illustrations, etc., are available for viewing; some databases also include transcribed texts in order to facilitate reading, sparing the user thechallenges of deciphering antique fonts and deteriorated texts. A library’s website will list databases, often by categories, in some type of “Find a Database” web page. Databases covering primary source materials may be listed under a “History” category, since they are integral to historical research, or they may be listed as their own category:
Figure 2.  Screen shot of a list of primary source databases on a library's website.

Figure 2. Screen shot of a list of primary source databases on a library

One such primary source database, ProQuest Historical Newspapers, covers The New York Times 1851-2007, The Chicago Tribune 1849-1987, and The Wall Street Journal 1889-1993.
If one wished to research The New York Times‘ coverage of the battle of Gettysburg (occasionally spelled “Gettysburgh:” hence an asterisk in the search terms to cover the spelling variations), one can create a search on that event, from July 1 to July 5, as shown below:

Figure 3. Sample search from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Figure 3. Sample search from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

There are 13 results from The New York Times, with viewable page images of the articles.

Figure 4.  Results from the above search.

Figure 4. Results from the above search.

In addition, reference books (e.g. encyclopedias, dictionaries, bibliographies, biographical sources) will identify names, dates, and publications that can be utilized in further research. And finally, there are pertinent subheadings for library catalog searching.

When library records are created for books and other materials in a library’s online catalog, authorized or controlled terminology is used to designate a resource as primary in nature. These official terms include the following:correspondence, diaries, interviews, personal narratives, sources, manuscripts, speeches, documents, photographs, pictorial works, maps, and statistics.

These can also be used as search terms

Correspondence Diaries Interviews
Personal narratives Sources Manuscripts
Documents Photographs Speeches
Pictorial works Maps Statistics

In order to retrieve such primary source materials from a library’s online catalog, doa keyword search using a word or words that convey your topic, and then add a term that specifies one of these types of primary sources:

Figure 5. Example of a search for women's diaries of the Civil War in an online catalog.

Figure 5. Example of a search for women

If you wish to be more inclusive and to obtain a variety of primary source categories, you may use an “advanced search” option in an online catalog as follows: enter a term or terms that describe the topic you are investigating, then in a separate text bar enter multiple terms that convey the types of primary sources you wish to retrieve, linking those words with “OR.”

Figure 6.  An example of an advanced search involving multiple concepts: Civil War AND Maine AND diaries or correspondence or personal narratives.  Note the use of multiple primary source formats as search terms, and the use of the connecting word OR,  in the third search box.

Figure 6. An example of an advanced search involving multiple concepts: Civil War AND Maine AND diaries or correspondence or personal narratives. Note the use of multiple primary source formats as search terms, and the use of the connecting word OR, in the third search box.

Figure 7.  Partial results list from the above search strategy.

Figure 7. Partial results list from the above search strategy.

Internet Searching

Primary sources are increasingly available online, either via subscription-based databases accessible through libraries, or as free websites affiliated with libraries, archives, associations, organizations, government agencies, and other bodies. Archives are found in libraries, institutions, organizations, and agencies; they may comprise unique collections of original, unpublished documents but may also include rare, published materials. These may include handwritten manuscripts, comprising the papers of an individual or multiple generations of a family; other archival collections may include the records of an organization or agency, reflecting its activities and transactions. These unpublished historical or contemporary materials are unique to the organizations that have created them and may be used in person, although archival collections nowadays are increasingly digitized for Internet access. Published research (books or scholarly articles) may refer to such collections in the cited sources used by scholars; alternatively, anInternet search that includes the word archives and the topic itself may disclose links to useful websites:

Figure 8.  Example of an Internet search for Civil War archives with partial results.

Figure 8. Example of an Internet search for Civil War archives with partial results.

Historic maps can also be primary sources; they can display the cartographer’s perspective on geography, topography, roads, and more. Here is a an example of an historic map from the American Memory project which displays the relative positions of Union and Confederate troops at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Figure 9. Field of Gettysburg, July 1st, 2nd & 3rd, 1863. Prepared by T. Ditterline Source: Library of Congress, American Memory Project.

Figure 9. Field of Gettysburg, July 1st, 2nd & 3rd, 1863. Prepared by T. Ditterline Source: Library of Congress, American Memory Project.

In addition, photographs can serve as primary sources; they serve as visible, immediate records of people, places and events at a moment in time. This one shows Union soldiers on the eve of battle. Note how the image below enhances one’s perception of the situation.


Figure 10.  Photograph of six officers of the 17th New York Battery Gettysburg, Pa. June 1863

Figure 10. Photograph of six officers of the 17th New York Battery Gettysburg, Pa. June 1863. Source: Library of Congress, American Memory Project.

Statistical Primary Sources

Some primary sources remain in print, although there is a trend toward digitization. For example, the decennial census is still available in print. The 8th census, taken in 1860, reveals interesting data about the population and economies of the regions and states on the eve of war. Table No. 33. – “Approximate statistics of the Products of Industry for the year ending June 1, 1860” shows the total number of manufacturing establishments in the U.S. as 128,300; of those, only 18,026 (14%) were located in Southern states. Of all the boots and shoes manufactured that year, only 8% were produced in the South. Likewise, only 0.7% of the value of all iron founding and 8.5% of steam engines and machinery in the U. S. produced in 1860 were made in the South. This type of data helps explain, in part, the outcome of the war.

The Census of the United States is a valuable primary source for statistics about the U.S. These may include data about population and household income; industry, employment and the economy; infrastructure such as roads, railroads, and canals; educational attainment; the justice system and the number of incarcerated persons. In addition, historical data document social conditions; below is a copy of the 1860 census documenting the number of “Slaves and Free Colored Persons” in North Carolina, reported by county.

Figure 11. Population of North Carolina by county by race. Source: Eighth Census of the United States, Table No. 2.

Figure 11. Population of North Carolina by county by race. Source: Eighth Census of the United States, Table No. 2.

Evaluating Primary Sources

Criteria for evaluating primary source material are similar to those used to assess secondary resources.

  • Authority of the author: what is known about the creator of the document, whether gleaned from the document itself or from external sources? What role did the creator play relative to the events or phenomena described in the source (e.g. an active participant or a passive witness)? When did the author record the experiences, i.e. has an extended passage of time affected the accuracy of the document?
  • Intended audience and purpose of the document: why was the document created and for whom? How might these factors have affected the nature of the contents and the manner in which they are presented in the source? (For example, how might a diary created simply as personal expression–a woman residing on a Southern plantation– differ from a diary written by a public figure–a Civil War general– mindful of his legacy and the prospect of eventual publication of such writings?)
  • Bias: are there discernible biases or points of view that affect the contents and the manner of presentation? How might these subjective perspectives affect the way in which a scholar might approach the document?
  • Accuracy and reliability: can the accounts or evidence be verified by external sources (whether other primary sources or secondary resources)? Are there significant gaps or omissions, and for what reason (i.e. is intention involved)? How does this source stand in comparison to other sources that deal with the same events or phenomena?

Evaluating Primary Source Web Sites

When looking at web sites containing digitized primary source materials, it is important to determine whether the primary source material has been altered, distorted, or selectively chosen in order to convey a predetermined meaning or to advance a particular argument. Websites created by educational, governmental, and non-profit institutions or organizations offer greater reliability than personal websites.

  • Who is responsible for the website? Look for credentials or qualifications of the creator or responsible organization, the contact address, and an “About” link to provide information about the website creator(s)
    • Trustworthy domains include: .edu, .gov, .org. Less reliable are .com or .net because they may driven by commercial objectives.
  • What is the purpose of the website? To support objective research and teaching, to provide factual information,to give access to an organization’s collections, or to advance a limited or biased argument (therefore selecting slanted documents accordingly)?
  • Determine the origin of the document. Websites should indicate the sources of the original materials. Documents may be available as scanned images so the researcher can see what the material looks like (sometimes in very high digitized resolution), or the document contents may be transcribed (re-keyed), thereby eliminating difficulties involved in deciphering handwritten manuscripts such as letters or diaries, or early type fonts that may have deteriorated or may be otherwise challenging to read. There may be links to other external web sites and documents in order to facilitate assessment of the material’s reliability, significance, and authenticity, or to provide corroboration or contextual background.
  • Consider the clarity of the presentation of the material, whether it is well organized and is accompanied by clear explanations of the sources’ background, origins, significance, etc.

Citing Data and Graphical Images

Both APA and MLA provide direction on how to cite your sources.


  • General review section 4.7
  • Citing a print source: section 5.8
  • Citing an electronic source: section 5.9.9


  • Sections 3.75 – 3.86
  • Be sure to include them in your bibliography.

Works Cited

Ditterline, T. “Field of Gettysburg, July 1st, 2nd & 3rd, 1863”. Library of Congress, American Memory Project. Web. 2 August 2011.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “The Forms of Power and the Power of Forms in the Renaissance”. Genre 15.1-2 (1982).

Kennedy, Joseph C. Preliminary Report on the Eighth Census 1860. Washington. GPO. 1862. Print.

Lincoln, Abraham. Letter to Charles Sumner. 19 May 1864. “Words and Deeds in American History” Collection, The American Memory. The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Web. 1 August 2011.

Population of the United States in 1860; Compiled from the Original Returns of the Eighth Census. Washington. GPO. 1864. Print.

“Six officers of the 17th New York Battery Gettysburg, Pa. June 1863”. Time Line of the Civil War, 1863. The American Memory Library of Congress, Washington. Web. 2 August 2011.


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