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About Primary Sources

What is a primary source?
A primary source is a document - a letter, photograph, diary, manuscript, financial record, book, or even a quotation - that was written or created in the time period you're researching by people who took part in or witnessed the event documented. A letter home from a soldier who witnessed a battle would be a primary source of information on that battle. Years later, a historian might try to reconstruct the events of the same battle from soldiers' letters. That would be a secondary source.

What is a secondary source?
Researchers and historians use primary sources to create secondary sources, which are created at a later date than the events described, or created by people who did not witness the event. A history textbook is a good example of a secondary source. So is a paper, project, or presentation that comes out of the primary source research you do. Although your project will have been created at a later time than the event, person, or place you researched and is therefore a secondary source, you will have used documents and pieces of evidence from the past - primary sources - as the basis for your project.

What are some examples of primary sources?

  • letters/correspondence
  • diaries/journals
  • scrapbooks
  • photographs
  • film or video recordings (such as home movies)
  • audio recordings (such as an oral history interview)
  • records of government agencies (such as annual reports or memoranda)
  • advertisements or posters
  • artifacts (such as objects or clothing)
  • maps
  • cartoons
  • illustrations
  • books (such as autobiographies)

Why primary sources?
Primary sources are useful for a number of reasons. Often, a source such as a letter, diary, or even photograph will reflect the point of view of the person who created it. The Hooverville documents in our Digital Document Library are a great example. While some Seattle residents felt strongly that Hoovervilles should be dismantled, others were more sympathetic and encouraged the City to improve conditions in the shantytowns. Both points of view are reflected in the documents on this website.

Make sure you are aware of any biases in a primary source document - ask yourself who created it and why - but being aware of various viewpoints on historical events can help you understand the events themselves. Furthermore, primary sources allow you to look into the past and to build on what you already know of events, people, or places. The primary source documents - letters, photographs, and other files - bring you closer to the events, people, and places described.

When searching for primary sources, it is helpful to think about who might have created the documents you are looking for. Materials in archives are kept together not by subject, but by who created them.

For more information on primary sources, check out this Ohio Historical Society website, which defines primary and secondary sources and gives you a list of questions you might want to ask yourself when doing research with primary sources.