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Primary Sources: Overview

How to identify, locate and use primary sources for your research.

Read this first!

If your class assignment requires the use of primary sources, make sure you understand what kinds of primary sources the professor expects you to use, and if published versions or reproductions are ok to use if you don’t have access to original primary sources on your topic.


    What is the difference between Primary and Secondary Sources?

    Primary Sources

    Primary sources are materials that offer “eyewitness” or first-hand accounts of people, places, and events of the past.

    ·      Letters, diaries, and other documents in which people record their thoughts, observations, experiences, and activities.

    ·      Records of governmental agencies (birth certificates, court records, etc.) and businesses (annual reports, meeting minutes, etc.)

    ·      Photographs, audio and video recordings of people, places, and events.

    ·      Published materials (books, articles) written at the time an event occurred, such as a newspaper article. If a publication is written by an author looking back in time, it is usually a secondary source, but even secondary sources may include transcripts or reproductions of primary sources.

    Secondary Sources

    Secondary sources are works that study or interpret people, places, and events of the past. Secondary sources are typically published works like books or articles.


    Primary Source (evidence)

    Secondary Source (interpretation)

    WWI letters from a US Soldier

    Book on the American Army in WWI

    Dairy of a 1960s anti-war protester

    Article on anti-war protests at colleges

    Photos of Alaskan glaciers

    Thesis on glacial changes in Alaska

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