This guide includes resources and research strategies for finding and using primary sources in the humanities. Learn:
In humanities disciplines like history and literature a primary source is a item produced from the time you are researching (e.g., photographs, a letters, newspaper articles, government documents). It can also be a first-person account about a past event or phenomenon. Looking at actual sources from a specific time helps you get a firsthand account of what was happening then.
This guide includes resources and research strategies for finding and using primary sources in the humanities.
Primary sources provide first-hand information about an event or phenomenon.
Secondary sources offer second-hand information and analysis; they offer draw from primary sources.
Video "Primary vs. Secondary Sources" from HistoryVideos100 (Minnesota Historical Society)
When you start primary source research, asking these key questions will help:
What evidence was created?
For the most part, the evidence used by historians to answer historical questions was not created for that purpose. The evidence of the past -- official records, personal papers, videorecordings, physical remains -- was created to serve the purposes of people with very different agendas. Nonetheless, considering broad categories of evidence can help you find the material you need. For example:
Also consider whether the material you need would have been published (newspapers, books) or would have had a more limited circulation (intra-office memos, personal correspondence, a private photo album).
What evidence was saved, and where?
Who might have collected the material you're hoping to find?
Finally, keep in mind that the material you need may be scattered among several libraries and archives.
Credit: Text in this box is adapted from Princeton University Libraries' Primary Sources guide, created by Steven Knowlton and Elizabeth Bennett.