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:
- Are original materials,
- Were created from the time period involved,
- Have not been filtered through interpretation or evaluation by others, and
- 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]
- 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 official documents [e.g., birth certificate, will, marriage license, trial transcript]
- Personal correspondence [e.g., letters]
- Proceedings of meetings, conferences and symposia
- Records of organizations, government agencies [e.g. annual report, treaty, constitution, government document]
- 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.