*This material is used with permission from the University of Pittsburgh Library's research guide on Primary Sources
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
Primary sources typically include such items as:
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.