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Primary Source Research

About This Primary Source Research Guide

This guide includes resources and research strategies for finding and using primary sources in the humanities. Learn:

  • what primary sources are,
  • questions to ask when doing primary source research,
  • where to look for primary sources (Research Tools), and
  • strategies for finding primary sources (Search Strategies), and
  • strategies for evaluating primary sources (Analyzing Primary Sources).

What is a Primary Source?

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).  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 vs. Secondary Sources

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)

Beginning Questions

When you start primary source research, asking these key questions will help:

  • What evidence was created?
  • What evidence was saved, and where?

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:

  • records and publications of governments
  • records and publications of organizations
  • papers of individuals
  • material culture -- buildings, artifacts, and art

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?

  • Published primary sources like newspapers, books, and government reports are likely to be held in libraries.
  • Unpublished documents and administrative records produced by national government agencies are likely to be held in national archives. Those produced by local administrations are likely to be held in municipal record offices or state archives.
  • Materials produced by an organization or business will likely be held by that organization if it still exists. If it no longer exists, look for an affiliated organization or a library or archive that collects material on that topic.
  • Personal papers, diaries, and materials related to local history are likely to be held in local libraries or historical societies.
  • Museum, archives and libraries all have collections of art and artifacts as well a written records.

Examples:

  • The records of the U.S. federal government are held at the National Archives.
  • The records of the New York City government are at the New York City Municipal Archives (but much other important material on NYC is at the New York Public Library or the New-York Historical Society.)
  • The personal papers of Harry Truman are held at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri.
  • The records of the British East India Company are held at the British Library.
  • The records of the Triangle Club are at the University Archives at Princeton.

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.