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Primary Sources: Defining Primary Sources

Primary Sources

This is a selective guide to finding primary source materials for historical research. The Knight-Capron Library maintains collections of primary sources in print, microform, and electronic formats. Additionally, there are hundreds of collections of primary source materials freely available online. Because there is no single comprehensive database of primary sources, you may need to explore different strategies for locating resources of interest.

What are primary sources? They are often referred to as "first hand" accounts or "original" records. They are the evidence historians use to build interpretations of the past. Most primary sources are created at the time an historical event occurred, while others, such as autobiographies, are produced long after the events they describe. Among the many types of materials that may be primary sources are: letters, diaries, speeches, newspaper articles, autobiographies, oral histories, government and organizational records, statistical data, maps, photographs, motion pictures, sound recordings, advertisements, and artifacts.

What is a Primary Source?

Primary Source by Discipline

The definition of a primary source varies depending upon the academic discipline and the context in which it is used.

  • 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.