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Primary Sources in History: What Are Primary Sources?

Primary Sources Can Be...


  • Letters and Memoranda
  • Autobiographies and Memoirs
  • Diaries and Journals
  • Business records
  • Newspaper or magazine articles from the time period being studied
  • Laws, Treaties and diplomatic correspondence
  • Government documents
  • Works of Art or Literature
  • Advertisements
  • Money, stamps, postcards
  • Shards of pottery
  • Trash

Primary Sources

Primary sources are the building blocks historians use to construct their own interpretation of their topic.  Different historians would use different blocks, and would arrange them in a different way.  Even if the subject matter is the same, every historian strives to create something that is unique, perhaps finding blocks that other historians had missed, rearranging the blocks or turning the previous construction upside down.

What Do Primary Sources Look Like?

Primary Sources come in many formats.  Dividing primary sources into categories like "Published' or 'Unpublished' doesn't provide much guidance, since they often look the same, and unpublished materials are often "published" on the Web.  The same source can be available as a manuscript at the Library of Congress, published as part of a book, in a microfilm set, and also available digitally on the web.  Think instead about where the source comes from, how would you gain access to it, and what can you learn from it.


Reference Librarian

Emily Witsell's picture
Emily Witsell
Summer 2020 Chat Hours: Monday 10am-12pm, Wednesday 12pm-2pm, and by appointment

Why Use Primary Sources?

Primary sources are called "raw history' because they are not filtered.  Individuals can review these sources and make their own judgments.  Primary sources also provide a sense of the immediacy of the historical event or issue, providing insight into the ideas, opinions, emotions and actions that shape history.