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African Studies Research Guide: Primary Sources

Reviews primary sources at Emory and elsewhere for research in African Studies, emphasizing African history.

What is a primary source?

Primary Sources



A primary source is typically defined as a source created by people who actually saw or participated in an event and recorded that event or their reactions to it immediately after the event. In contrast, secondary source is a source created by someone either not present when the event took place or removed by time from the event. Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to the truth of what actually happened during an historical event or time period. Primary sources are the evidence left behind by participants or observers. Examples of primary sources include:

  • Diaries, journals, speeches, interviews, letters, memos, manuscripts and other papers in which individuals describe events in which they were participants or observers;
  • Memoirs and autobiographies;
  • Records of organizations and agencies of government;
  • Published materials written at the time of the event, ex. newspapers;
  • Photographs, audio recordings, moving pictures, video recordings documenting what happened;
  • Artifacts of all kinds; and
  • Research reports in the sciences and social sciences.

For more information on general primary sources, listen to a podcast discussion of primary sources in history and science which is part of the Library Survival Series or read Primary Source Research Guide. Original primary sources are available in libraries and archives thoughout the world in print or microformat. Digital versions are increasingly available.

The Emory Libraries contain many primary sources related to Africa.

For research in African history, the papers of explorers, missionaries, and diplomats as well as official government documents and records are extremely important and are the focus of this guide. A separate guide for African news sources is available

Many primary sources are available on the web. Check out some tips for how to evaluate these resources.

Also check out this helpful tutorial on British primary sources available on the Internet. It provides a quick overview of the British archival system and British university archives. Also advice on how to read an archival description.


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Melissa Hackman