Skip to main content

Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Primary Sources

The purpose of this guide is to provide advice on how to develop and organize a research paper in the social sciences.

Definition

Primary sources were either created during the time period being studied or were created at a later date by a participant in the events being studied, such as, a childhood memoir. They are original documents [i.e., they are not about another document or account] and reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer. Primary sources represent direct, uninterpreted records of the subject of your research study.

Value of Primary Sources

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. However, what constitutes a primary or secondary source depends on the context in which it is being used. For example, David McCullough’s biography of John Adams could be a secondary source for a paper about John Adams, but a primary source for a paper about how various historians have interpreted the life of John Adams. When in doubt, ask a librarian for assistance!

Reviewing primary source material can be of value in improving your overall research paper because they:

  1. Are original materials,
  2. Were created from the time period involved,
  3. Have not been filtered through interpretation or evaluation by others, and
  4. Represent original thinking or experiences, reporting of a discovery, or the sharing of new information.

Examples of primary documents you could review as part of your overall study include:

  • Artifacts [e.g. furniture or clothing, all from the time under study]
  • Audio recordings [e.g. radio programs]
  • Diaries
  • Internet communications on email, listservs, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms
  • Interviews [e.g., oral histories, telephone, e-mail]
  • Newspaper articles written at the time
  • Original Documents [i.e. birth certificate, will, marriage license, trial transcript]
  • Patents
  • Personal correspondence [e.g., letters]
  • Photographs
  • Proceedings of meetings, conferences and symposia
  • Records of organizations, government agencies [e.g. annual report, treaty, constitution, government document]
  • Speeches
  • Survey Research [e.g., market surveys, public opinion polls]
  • Transcripts of radio and television programs
  • Video recordings
  • Works of art, architecture, literature, and music [e.g., paintings, sculptures, musical scores, buildings, novels, poems]

Bahde, Anne. Using Primary Sources: Hands-On Instructional Exercises. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2014; Brundage, Anthony. Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2013; Daniels, Morgan and Elizabeth Yakel. “Uncovering Impact: The Influence of Archives on Student Learning.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 39 (September 2013): 414-422; Krause, Magia G. “Undergraduates in the Archives: Using an Assessment Rubric to Measure Learning.” The American Archivist 73 (Fall/Winter 2010): 507-534; Rockenbach, Barbara. “Archives, Undergraduates, and Inquiry-Based Learning: Case Studies from Yale University Library.” The American Archivist 74 (Spring/Summer 2011): 297-311; Weiner, Sharon A., Sammie Morris, and Lawrence J. Mykytiuk. "Archival Literacy Competencies for Undergraduate History Majors." The American Archivist 78 (Spring/Summer 2015): 154-180.