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PRIMARY SOURCES

What is a primary source?

A primary source is a piece of evidence. It is a by-product of an event or a recording of an event as it happened and is a document that is created at a particular time, usually by an individual who has knowledge of or who was involved with the event. Here are some examples:

  • Personal journals, diaries, letters
  • Interviews, speeches (either the recording or the transcript)
  • Photographs, cards, maps, coins, works of art
  • Manuscripts, such as official publications (of political parties, organizations, etc...) or other unpublished materials
  • Newspaper articles (often, but not always)
  • Magazine articles when used for the purposes of social history or as documentary evidence
  • Meeting minutes, receipts, or other adminstrative documents
  • Court transcripts
  • News programs that were recorded from television, news reels
  • Unpublished research data (collected but not yet interpreted)
  • Eye witness accounts
  • Documentary films, etc...

 

Why use a primary source?

Primary sources allow direct entry into an historical event. Sometimes they are difficult to understand. Having even a surface understanding of the context in which they were produced helps to interpret primary sources.

 

What is a secondary source?

A secondary source is a document that is based upon and refers to primary sources. Examples of secondary sources include books or articles about historical events, political events or literary works, etc.

Why use a primary source?

Primary sources allow direct entry into an historical event. Sometimes they are difficult to understand. Having even a surface understanding of the context in which they were produced helps to interpret primary sources.

How to find primary sources?

Use the bibliographies of books, as a starting point. Historians routinely cite their primary sources in the books they write. Journal articles can also cite primary sources, and knowing how to find historical newspapers or other library collections of primary sources is important. 

If you would like to find books that are based on primary sources, use OneSearch and add the word "sources" to your keyword or subject search. You could also use other keywords such as "interviews," "letters," "oral testimony," "archival records," "correspondence," "memoirs," or "photographs." 

In any database, start by using a keyword search on the topic, and then add the keywords listed above to find primary sources. Using a historical database will increase your chances of finding articles with keywords for primary sources. Other databases, such as historical newspaper databases, will not use the word "sources," since everything is a source. 

Here are some examples :

  • "World War I" and diaries
  • "Berlin wall" and sources
  • "Mackenzie King" and speeches

 

 

Types of Primary Sources

Books from the time period you're writing about

  • Search the library catalogs:  msjc.edu by topic and limit by date of publication

Memoirs, letters, interviews, autobiographies, diaries

  • Search the library catalogs:  for the name of an individual as an author (last name, first name)
  • If you do not have the name of an individual, search by topic and add the appropriate subject terms to the subject heading:

    -Correspondence
    -Diaries
    -Interviews
    -Personal narratives

Example:  subject keywords:  Japanese Americans interviews

  • Browse the regional state or country web site for transcripts of oral histories on a wide variety of subjects.