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Primary Sources Research Guide

Defining Primary Sources

  • Primary sources are original materials that provide direct evidence or first-hand testimony concerning a topic or event -- firsthand records created by people who actually participated in or remembered an event and reported on the event and their reactions to it.
  • Primary sources can be contemporary sources created at the time when the event occurred (e.g., letters and newspaper articles) or later (such as, memoirs and oral history interviews).
  • Primary sources may be published or unpublished. Unpublished sources include unique materials (e.g., family papers) often referred to as archives and manuscripts.
  • What constitutes a primary source varies by discipline -- see Primary Sources by Discipline below. How the researcher uses the source generally determines whether it is a primary source or not.

*This material is used with permission from the University of Pittsburgh Library's research guide on Primary Sources

Primary Sources by Discipline

The definition of a primary source varies depending upon the academic discipline and the context in which it is used.

1. In the humanities, a primary source could be defined as something that was created either during the time period being studied or afterward by individuals reflecting on their involvement in the events of that time.

Examples from the humanities:  

  • Art: painting, photograph, print, sculpture, film or other work of art, sketch book, architectural model or drawing, building or structure, letter,  organizational records, personal account by artist
  • History: artifact, diary, government report, interview, letter, map, news report, oral history, organizational records, photograph, speech, work of art
  • Literature: interview, letter, manuscript, personal account by writer, poem, work of fiction or drama, contemporary review
  • Music: score, sound recording, contemporary review, letter, personal account by composer or musician

2. In the social sciences, the definition of a primary source would be expanded to include numerical data that has been gathered to analyze relationships between people, events, and their environment.  

Examples from the social sciences: 

  • Anthropology: artifact, field notes, fossil, photograph
  • Business: market research or surveys, anything that documents a corporation's activities, such as annual reports, meeting minutes, legal documents, marketing materials, and financial records.
  • Communication: websites, blogs, broadcast recordings and transcripts, advertisements and commercials, public opinion polls, and magazines (e.g., Rolling Stone).
  • Economics: company statistics, consumer survey, data series
  • Geography: field notes, census data, maps, satellite images, and aerial photographs.
  • Law: code, statute, court opinion, legislative report
  • Psychology: case study, clinical case report, experimental replication, follow-up study, longitudinal study, treatment outcome study
  • Sociology: cultural artifact, interview, oral history, organizational records, statistical data, survey

3. In the natural sciences, a primary source could be defined as a report of original findings or ideas. These sources often appear in the form of research articles with sections on methods and results.

Examples in the natural sciences:

  • Biology, Chemistry, etc: research or lab notes, genetic evidence, plant specimens, technical reports, and other reports of original research or discoveries (e.g., conference papers and proceedings, dissertations, scholarly articles).

*This material is used with permission from the Lafayette College Library research guide on primary sources.
Image 1: "Massachusetts Bay Colony 1776"  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Tom Woodward: Flickr
Image 2: "data"  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 CyberHades: Flickr
Image 3: "Katydid 50x Magnification Wing, Coventry, CT"  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Macroscopic Solutions: Flickr

Examples of Primary Sources

Primary sources typically include such items as:

  • manuscripts, letters, first-person diaries, memoirs, personal journals, interviews, speeches, oral histories, and other materials individuals used to describe events in which they were participants or observers. Many of these materials frequently are referred to as "papers";
  • records of government agencies and other organizations, including such documents as parliamentary debates, proceedings of organization meetings, conferences, etc. Many of these materials frequently are referred to as "archives";
  • original documents such as birth certificates, marriage and baptismal registers, wills, trial transcripts, etc.;
  • published materials written at the time of the event, including newspapers, news magazines, advertising, cartoons, and other ephemeral publications such as pamplets and flyers;
  • contemporary creative works of literature, art, and music, such as novels, paintings, compositions, poems, etc.;
  • contemporary photographs, maps, audio recordings, television and radio broadcasts, and moving pictures;
  • Internet communications including email, listservs, and blogs;
  • statistical and numeric data collected by various government and private agencies, including census data, opinion polls, and other surveys;
  • research reports and case studies in the sciences or social sciences;
  • artifacts of all kinds such as coins, clothing, fossils, furniture, and musical instruments from the time period under study

Primary sources sometimes can be ambiguous and contradictory, relecting a specific person's opinions and contemporary cultural influences on them. For that very reason such sources are invaluable tools for developing your own interpretations and reaching your own conclusions about what is going on at a point in time.