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History: What are Primary Sources?

Search Tips For Primary Sources

Listed below are a number of special subject headings that you can use to locate printed publications of primary source materials in a library's online catalog or WorldCat. For more terms, consult a list of Library of Congress subject headings for primary source materials.

  • correspondence
  • interviews
  • personal narratives
  • diaries
  • sources
  • notebooks
  • case studies
  • archives


Holocaust and personal narratives

slavery and sources

World War, 1939-1945 and diaries


Secondary & Reference Sources

Make use of secondary and reference sources to help you find primary materials.  These include:

  • Bibliographies
  • Guides to the Literature in your subject
  • Periodical Indexes
  • Biographical Resources
  • Encyclopedias, Dictionaries, Handbooks
  • Secondary Sources (mine the text, footnotes, bibliographies, and acknowledgements for ideas)

The Thrill of Discovery: Primary Sources

Primary sources are the foundation of historical research. Primary sources become the supporting evidence for your own arguments and interpretations on a topic allowing you to add to the scholarship in your area of interest.

The definition of a primary source varies between different disciplines.

  • "In the humanities, a primary source could be defined as something that was created either during the time period being studied or afterward by individuals reflecting on their involvement in the events of that time.

  • In the social sciences, the definition of a primary source would be expanded to include numerical data that has been gathered to analyze relationships between people, events, and their environment.

  • In the natural sciences, a primary source could be defined as a report of original findings or ideas. These sources often appear in the form of research articles with sections on methods and results."

Primary Sources  vs. Secondary Sources: What's the difference?

Primary sources are items that are directly associated with their producer or user of the time period in which they were created. Examples include, diaries, newspapers articles, government documents, clothing, photographs, oral interviews, and news broadcasts.

Secondary works are analysis and interpretations based on primary sources and other sources, which can include other secondary works such as books and journal articles.

**Understand the historical context**

In order to analyze primary sources, you need to know the historical context of when a primary source was created. You should be aware of the following.

  • point of view or bias
  • two observers of the same event could have very different perspectives
  • source might not contain accurate or factual information
  • understand historical usage of language

Locating Primary Sources

Primary Sources can be divided into two additional categories: published and unpublished.

  • Published sources are easier to locate and can be found in local library catalogs or much larger databases, such as WorldCat, and acquired through Inter-library loan.     
  • Unpublished sources are typically one-of-a-kind items held in a museum or archive, although digitization efforts have made these types of materials available on the Internet.

Here are some general characteristics of the types of organizations and institutions that hold primary sources.

  • Archives
  • Local historical societies
  • Museums
  • Universities
  • Libraries

*Before visiting a museum or archive, you should contact the curator or archivist to find out more about the collection. Sometimes copies can be made and sent of the materials you want. Archives can often receive high volumes of requests for information, so if you decide to contact one of these organizations, be sure to have a fairly clear idea of what you are looking for (the more information you provide the better), as they will more than likely not have the time to search through boxes of manuscripts looking for your evidence.

Collections housed in The Wells College Archives are available to the Wells community upon request. For more about the archives visit:


Primary Sources

(Source: Escaped Slave Reward Poster)

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Video: Primary & Secondary Sources

This video will help to further distinguish between primary and secondary sources.