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Primary Sources

A selective guide to finding primary sources at USC and beyond

The USC Libraries have numerous collections of primary sources in print, microfilm, and online. Additionally, there are hundreds of primary sources freely available on the Internet.

Primary sources provide an unfiltered view of the past and in so doing offer personal, unique, and more complex insight into the period being studied. Instead of viewing history as a list of dates and facts, primary sources provide the original artifacts of historical interpretation. 

Be advised that primary source research is different from other forms of research. It can often be more time consuming due to several factors: 

  • There is no single repository of primary sources

  • There is often limited metadata describing primary sources which means you will have to utilize terminology from the time period to locate relevant sources. This means you must determine the terminology from the time period before or during the search process. 

  • Locally held primary source collections at USC (that have not been digitized) are stored in our off site storage library, which can take over a week to be brought to campus. Once they arrive you may then have to sift through numerous boxes/folders until you find the ones relevant to your topic/information need. 

Don't let the time consuming nature of primary source research discourage you! Primary source research is incredibly rewarding, engaging and fun. Primary sources reveal the diverse nature of human experience, values, and attitudes while connecting you to the past in a way textbooks and second hand accounts cannot. They also have the potential of challenging accepted historical "truths," which in turn exposes the contingent and tentative nature of all historical interpretation. As you explore and examine primary sources you become the interpreter of history.

Image from: 16th century Fewelling Antiphonary manuscript
Some content adapted from:

Primary, Secondary & Tertiary Sources Defined

Primary sources are materials that provide first hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by the individuals who either witnessed or experienced the events or conditions being documented. Generally, primary sources are created at the time when the events or conditions occurred, but can also be created later if based on first hand experiences. Primary sources enable you to get as close as possible to understanding the lived experiences of others and discovering what actually happened during an event or time period. 


  • diaries 
  • correspondence
  • photographs and illustrations 
  • maps
  • newspaper articles from the time period 
  • manuscripts 
  • pamphlets 
  • broadsides, posters and other ephemera 
  • autobiographical materials
  • interview or speech transcripts
  • oral histories
  • government documents (laws, bills, proceedings, acts, census records, etc.)

Context is everything: distinguishing between the three types of sources (primary, secondary and tertiary) will vary according to context and situation. For example, if you are analyzing how African American history was depicted in middle school textbooks in the 1980s, then the textbooks would be considered a primary source rather than a tertiary one.

Primary sources vary by discipline: different disciplines define primary sources differently. This is because the artifact considered to be a primary or original source varies by discipline. For instance, in the sciences a primary source is one that describes or presents original research, experiments or discoveries. These are often published as journal articles, which in other disciplines are considered secondary sources.  

Discipline Primary Source
Art creative artifacts: drawings, paintings, sculpture etc.
Music sheet music, recordings
English play, poem or novel
Political Science treaties, congressional record
Sciences report/article documenting an original experiment/study
Film/Television script, video recording, film

 Some of this content adapted from:

Secondary Sources interpret and/or analyze primary and secondary sources. Secondary sources can be a useful way of discovering significant primary sources. 


  • Scholarly journal articles - JSTOR, for example
  • Biographies - American National Biography (database)
  • Literary criticism analyzing a play, poem, novel, or short story - Literature Resource Center
  • Political commentary analyzing an election, politician, or event
  • Documentaries - although these contain primary sources, these primary sources have been selected, framed and interpreted and so documentaries are typically not considered to be primary sources as a whole. However, interviews unique to the documentaries can be considered and utilized as primary sources. In general, it is always a good rule of thumb to track down the original source of evidence referenced in a documentary or any secondary source if you want to use it in your research. 

Tertiary Sources provide overviews of a topic and synthesize information from primary and secondary sources. 


  • ​Textbooks
  • Book reviews
  • Wikipedia
  • Britannica Academia Edition
  • A Companion to 19th Century America

Tertiary sources are extremely useful as you begin to look for primary sources. You can use them to find important dates, people, organizations, locations and sometimes terminology from the time period. Once you have this information then you can begin your search for primary sources. 

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