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Primary Sources

Primary Source materials are the “building blocks” of history.

Primary sources are first-hand sources created at the time of a particular event or period under study. They may be artifacts or observations or accounts of events or experiments. They include books, journal or newspaper articles, audio-visual materials, official documents, broadsides and pamphlets, statistical data, lab books, and archival materials. They also include artifacts such as paintings, coins, stamps, and manufactured items. 

Secondary sources are interpretations or analyses of primary source information. Secondary sources include textbooks, encyclopedias, as well as any secondhand telling of an event. 

Examples of Primary Sources:

  • Audio recordings of a speech or oral history
  • Autobiographies, diaries, or letters
  • Certain government documents, such as congressional hearings or agency reports
  • Interviews
  • Journal articles which report first hand observations
  • Newspaper accounts of events
  • Photographs or moving images of an event
  • Records of an organization, often kept in Archives

Examples of Secondary Sources:

  • Biographies
  • Books that are secondhand observations or analysis of events or experimental research
  • Most journal articles, unless they are first hand observations of events or experimental research
  • Newspaper editorials
  • Reference materials, such as encyclopedias and handbooks

In some cases, depending on how it is interpreted, a primary source may also be a secondary source. For example, the Federalist Papers might be considered a secondary source on ancient Rome, even though it is a primary source on the history of the American Constitution. A movie review from the 1950s might be a secondary source on the film, but a primary source for studying the history of criticism in the 1950s.

How to Find Primary Sources: