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HIS - History (WO)

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are immediate, first-hand accounts of a topic from people who had a direct connection with it. 

  • Newspapers written at the time of an event
  • Diaries
  • Letters
  • Slave narratives
  • Oral histories
  • Government documents
  • Receipts
  • Speeches
  • Photographs
  • Artwork
  • Artifacts
  • Buildings
  • Music
  • Social media (e.g., a post from someone who lived during a historical moment, like a BLM protest or COVID-19)

A treaty map of Africa, a primary source

Secondary sources are a scholarly analysis or interpretation of a historical topic, written by someone who did not experience it.

  • Books
  • Articles
  • Websites
  • Any source written by someone who did not actually experience the thing they are writing about (in other words, an interpretation or analysis).

Book with plain red cover

So, for example, Frederick Douglass' autobiography is a primary source, but a book about his life written by someone living today is a secondary source.

Secondary sources often incorporate primary sources, so you might expect to see copies of Frederick Douglass' letters in a book about his life written today.  The book is a secondary source, but the letters themselves are primary.

In most history classes, the focus of your research will be secondary sources, but primary sources can provide fascinating insight. 

Most history databases like Daily Life Through History and Gale's History In Context include some primary sources, but the link below focus exclusively on primary sources.

Primary Sources in Print

Books are a great source for primary sources, because they usually provide helpful introductory text for each document.  To find primary sources from the library, search with a keyword related to your topic and "primary sources".  Look for book titles that include "sources", "sourcebook", "documents" and similar words.  For example, search:

Ottoman women AND "primary sources"

Search for books using "primary sources" as a keyword.

Online Primary Sources

World & US
United States

Historical Newspapers