What is a primary source?

Historians use the term “primary source” to describe a piece of historical evidence such as an artifact, photograph, newspaper article, book, or letter originally created during the era you are researching. Abraham Lincoln’s is a primary source, as are the uniforms Union and Confederate soldiers wore while listening to him speak on November 19, 1863. Portraits made of Lincoln while he was in the White House are examples of visual primary sources. Historical participants also create primary sources after a historical event or period takes place in the form of memoirs such as Civil Rights activist Anne Moody’s autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi. Primary sources are first-hand accounts from history.

Primary sources are valuable to historians because they give insight into the ways in which historical figures understood or internalized what they experienced, their place or significance in history, and give historians an understanding of historical figures’ opinions. Primary sources created by institutions, such as a census or survey, can help document basic statistics concerning an era. Primary sources are clues from the past.

Primary sources can be resultant from an historical subject writing for private use, such as the diary of Martha Ballard, a midwife from Hallowell, Maine, who kept a journal from 1785 to 1812. Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich analyzed Ballard’s private diary in the early 1990s and made crucial arguments about the daily private lives of women in the Early Republic, earning Ulrich the Pulitzer Prize for History. Other primary sources result from the intent to publish, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which actively tried to reach a large audience to garner support for abolitionism. Primary sources can also be published as transcriptions of other primary sources, such as a collection of the speeches given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Primary sources in different media from the same historical event can be used in conjunction. For example, if a student was writing about the John F. Kennedy assassination, she could compare newspaper articles and coverage from different cities across the country to determine a sequence of events while showing the diversity of opinion on the assassination in 1963. She could analyze footage filmed during the parade route in Dallas, along with Walter Cronkite’s television broadcast during the announcement of the President’s death to portray how one recognizable American visually experienced the news. This same television footage could also be used to discuss how American’s consumption of new forms of technology changed the way they received news about the Kennedy’s death compared to Americans who relied on newspapers and radio. The student could read the Warren Commission, condolence letters sent to Jacqueline Kennedy, or listen to oral histories from everyday Americans in order to create the fullest account of what took place and the ways in which Kennedy and his death was historically significant.

A Selection of Primary Source Examples
 • Books
• Newspapers, Magazines, and Newsletter articles
• Diaries
• Courtroom testimonies, verdicts, legal documents
• Songs, records, sheet music, concert footage
• Interviews and oral histories
• Treaties
• Clothing, household items, textiles
• Speeches
• Photographs, posters, cartoons, novels, trade cards, advertisements, sketches, blueprints
• Films and television shows
• Radio broadcasts
• Polls, the census, public works surveys
• Memoirs and autobiographies

What is a secondary source?

A secondary source typically utilizes multiple primary sources to piece together the chronology, events, or experiences of something that took place in history in order to make a scholarly argument. Secondary sources are analytical examinations of primary sources produced by people who were not involved with nor experienced the historical era, event, or person studied. Historians write secondary sources about history.

What should students look for while researching primary sources?

There are eight critical thinking elements students should consider when searching for primary sources. They do not need to locate all eight in every document that they read, but they should be aware of them:

  • Thesis: Is this document making an argument? What is it?
  • Evidence: What factual evidence is included such as the year the document was created, the place it was created, how it was distributed, and so forth.
  • Author and audience: Who created this document? Who was the original intended audience? How did the audience shape the way this document was made?
  • Bias: What is this author’s bias due to their race, gender, class, sexual orientation, citizenship, political affiliation, occupation, religion, and so forth?
  • Structure: How is the argument structured? Why?
  • Alternative documents: Now that you understand what is going on in this document, is there another piece of evidence you wish you could also find that might bring further light to the subject? If you can think of anything that you would like to investigate, write down your ideas so you can discuss these options with your teacher, librarian, or curator if you are unable to locate the documents yourself.
  • Grouping: Consider all the primary sources you have come across while working on your project. Are there documents making similar arguments you can group together? Where does this document fit in with the others?
  • Significance: What is the historical significance of this primary source? How does it help you gain a better understanding of the larger historical significance of the person or event you are researching? In short: why does this document matter? Why should we care?

Basic rules for historians

  1. Respect your subject: When writing about a person from the past, you are developing a unique bond with them. Like a scientist in a lab, when you read or handle historical primary sources in an archive, you may discover elements of the past currently unknown to others. While researching, keep in mind that you are researching human beings from another historical context, so avoid using phrases such as “they were intelligent for their era” or “beyond their time” as these expressions subtly cast judgment on the subject, valuing our own lived experiences and historical context above theirs.
  2. Do not generalize: Remember that individuals with a wide range of opinions and experiences form groups, organizations, and movements, so when you proofread, make sure you are not making wide-ranging generalizations without evidence to support your claim. For example, not every white person in the antebellum South owned slaves and not every woman in the colonial era experienced oppression.
  3. Avoid anachronisms: An anachronistic statement is one in which an idea, event, or person is referenced or represented in a way that is inconsistent with the historical period being researched.
  4. Be aware of your own biases: Just as you were aware of the biases of the creators of the primary sources you looked at, try to be conscious of the ways in which your own understanding of the world impacts the way you tell someone else’s life story and their historical significance.

How to begin research for free using reputable online sources

Before heading to the library, try a few searches online.

  1. Does Google Books have any secondary sources about your topic? If so, can you read the entire text online? If not, write down the titles so you can look at them in the library or order them online.
    • A reliable secondary source should include primary sources to support the book’s major arguments and historical claims. Look at both the bibliography and the footnotes for source documents. Do any of the referenced primary sources look interesting or useful? If so, the citation will tell you where that primary source is located (for example, a book on the Berlin Wall might reference a piece of the wall housed at the Smithsonian). Citations help you track down primary sources so you can view them and analyze them for yourself. Although you might not live near the sources, librarians and curators can often send you digital images or e-mail you scanned copies of documents. If you are enrolled in a university, many colleges also participate in inter-library loan programs. In these programs, theUniversityofWisconsinmight be temporarily loan a book to a student at theUniversityofMichigan.
    • If you are unsure if the book you are using is a reputable source, look at the publisher. If the book is published by a university (for example, Oxford University Press, Chicago University Press) rest assured that a top notch historian wrote the book and that it was vetted by a selective publishing house. You will therefore be safe referencing this book. If a popular press published the book, look up the author’s credentials. Where did the author go to school? What was the author’s training?
  2. Does Google Scholar have any articles about your topic written by academics or professionals that you can access free of charge? If so, bookmark the articles or print them out. Be sure to write down the URL address and the date you accessed the article so you can properly cite the online article later.
  3. Does Google News Archive have newspaper articles about your topic? Search by the date of the event, the names of prominent people involved, and in newspapers from various cities near the location of the event. If you are researching a specific individual, newspaper articles can provide key dates in their lives (especially obituaries) and interesting anecdotal evidence that might be new to you. Once you have an idea of major dates to look for, you can look at further newspaper articles on microfilm at your local library that have not been digitized. If your searches in Google News Archive come back with an overwhelming amount of results, you can use their graphing features to show change over time in terms of the number of articles written about your topic, publication locations, distribution areas, and any major keywords.
  4. Try looking at the Library of Congress or the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) at http://www.archives.gov/research/arc/index.html. This is a collection of 78,000 digitized government resources and documents. To search digitized materials only, check the box marked “Descriptions of Archival Materials linked to digital copies.”
  5. Go to research library websites for major universities and historical societies located near where the event you are researching took place or where your subject resided (such as, the New England Historical Society). Local curators are often happy to assist by e-mail and telephone. Through these resources, you will find unique artifacts, images, and personal correspondence that will make your research personal, detailed, and unique.
  6. Listed under “Study Guides” are further online collections of primary sources to help you begin your search for a historical subject or topic.
Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University (2018-) and President of the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography. She is the co-founder and C.E.O. of U.S. History Scene and an Executive Advisor to the documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" (now streaming PBS, 2019).