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Primary Sources: What is a Primary Source?

A guide to understanding and finding primary sources at the USA Marx Library.

Primary Sources: A Definition

Primary Sources are materials produced by participants or observers at the time of an event or during a particular span of years.

They are "original" in that the recording of these event or experience originates with the participants or direct observers.

Some examples of Primary Sources:

  • Diaries, journals, letters, speeches, correspondence, autobiographies, oral histories, life writings
  • Official documents or records from government or private organizations (minutes, reports, etc.)
  • Books, magazines, advertisements, journals and newspapers produced at the time of the event or during a span of time in question
  • Court decisions, transcripts, and other legal papers
  • Research data (reports, market surveys, public opinion polls, statistics)
  • Films, photographs, paintings, video recordings, sound recordings
  • Novels, poetry, and plays
  • Artifacts such as works of art, tools, and weapons

Note: The nature and value of a source cannot be determined without reference to the topic and questions it is meant to answer.  The same document may be a primary source in one investigation and secondary in another.  The search for primary sources does not, therefore, automatically include or exclude any category of records or documents.

Totally confused?  Don't worry, just ask one of your friendly reference librarians!

Check out this handy handout from the University of Calfornia Irvine that helps you analyze primary source content.

It can be tricky...let this helpful website from Yale University give you some tips on determining whether something is or isn't a primary source.

Secondary Sources: A Definition

You may be asking yourself, how are primary sources different than secondary sources.  Well, here is your answer!

Secondary sources are materials that interpret, analyze, describe, or explain primary sources.  Textbooks, encyclopedias, biographies, scholarly books, and journal articles are examples of common secondary sources.  These sources are "secondary" in that usually they are one step removed from the event or time period about which they comment or analyze.

The following video tutorial from on YouTube offers some good illustrations of the difference between primary and secondary sources.  



Primary Source Examples

Roosevelt's Rough Riders embarking for Santiago / Thomas A. Edison, Inc.

The Spanish American War in Motion Pictures, Library of Congress

Magnolia Grove: Vera L. Henry

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Folklore Project, WPA Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

Fredrick Douglas Diary

Fredrick Douglas Papers, Library of Congress

Jobs for girls & women If you want a good job in household employment apply at - or write to Illinois State Employment Service: Bender, Albert M., artist

The WPA Poster Collection, Library of Congress


Page from Walt Whitman's "Sense and Perception" Notebook

Poet at Work: Recovered Notebooks, Thomas Biggs Horned Whitman Collection, Library of Congress


Lever Bros. Advertisements for Lux (laundry flakes)

Emergence of Advertising in America: 1850-1920, Duke University Special Collections


Erik Overbey (1882-1977) Collection

University of South Alabama Archives


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