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Primary Sources Research Guide   Tags: primary, primary_sources, sources  

Last Updated: Apr 3, 2014 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

What Are Primary Sources? Print Page

What Are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are firsthand records created by people who actually participated in or remembered an event and reported on the event and their reactions to it. Such firsthand accounts - along with other contemporary written, oral, or visual evidence - help scholars to document and interpret the past, enriching our collective understanding of history and culture.

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 organizxations, 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.;
  • comtemporary 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.

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