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Primary Sources

This guide can help with understanding and location primary sources, including digitized content.

What is a Primary Source?

Primary sources are materials that provide direct evidence or firsthand testimony concerning the period or subject under investigation.  These raw, uninterpreted materials document the events witnessed firsthand that have been recorded by the creator(s) of the materials.  Primary sources allow you to make your own interpretations without having to rely on what other scholars have already written on the topic.  Remember what is considered a primary sources is subject and research dependent.  Make sure to check with a professor for what is considered a primary source in a given field of study.

Types of Sources

There are three types of sources:

1) Primary Sources

  • Materials that contain direct evidence, first-hand testimony, or an eyewitness account concerning a topic or event under investigation
  • Primary sources provide the raw data for your research
  • Examples:  In addition to diaries, correspondence, statistics, photographs, and the many other types sources typically considered to be primary sources, you may add just anything to the list.  The the subject area, the way you interpret or use a source determines whether it is a primary source or not.

2) Secondary Sources

  • Use primary data to solve research problems
  • Examples:  scholarly books and articles
  • Secondary sources can be interpreted as primary sources when the artifactual characteristics of the item are of research value.

3) Tertiary Sources

  • Books or articles that synthesize and report on secondary sources for general readers
  • Examples include textbooks, encyclopedia articles, Wikipedia

Adapted from The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, c2008.