Historical Primary Sources

History Librarian

Margaret Burri

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Primary Sources

Primary sources help you get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period.  A primary source reflects the viewpoint of a participant or observer. 

  • Diaries, journals, speeches, interviews, letters, memos, manuscripts, and other papers in which people describe events in which they were participants or observers.
  • Memoirs and autobiographies. These may be less reliable than diaries or letters since they are usually written long after events occurred and may be distorted by bias, dimming memory, or the revised perspective that may come with hindsight.  On the other hand, they are sometimes the only source for certain information.
  • Records of, or information collected by, government agencies.  Many kinds of records (births, deaths, marriages; permits and licenses issued; census data, etc.) document societal conditions.
  • Records of organizations.   The minutes, reports, correspondence, etc. of an organization or agency serve as an ongoing record of the its activity and thinking.
  • Published materials (books, magazine and journal articles, newspaper articles) written at the time about a particular event.  While these are sometimes accounts by participants, in most cases they are written by journalists or other observers.  The important thing is to distinguish between material written at the time of an event as a kind of report, and material written much later, as historical analysis.
  • Photographs, audio recordings and moving pictures or video recordings, documenting what happened.

    Declaration of the German Republic, 9 November 1918 from the Digital Archive of the National Library of Scotland (no known copyright restrictions) via Flickr Commons

  • Materials that document the attitudes and popular thought of a historical  time period. If you want to find evidence documenting the mentality or psychology of a time, or of a group (evidence of a world view, a set of attitudes, or the popular understanding of an event or condition), the most obvious source is public opinion polls taken at the time.  Since these are generally very limited in availability and in what they reveal, however, it is also possible to make use of ideas and images conveyed in the mass media, and even in literature, film, popular fiction, textbooks, etc.  Again, the point is to use these sources, written or produced at the time, as evidence of how people were thinking.

  • Research data such as anthropological field notes, the results of  scientific experiments, and other scholarly activity of the time.

  • Artifacts of all kinds: physical objects, buildings, furniture, tools, appliances and household items, clothing, toys.


    This bowl depicts President James Garfield and it is from the Susan H. Douglas Political Americana Collection, #2214 Rare & Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, Cornell University (no known copyright restrictions) via Flickr Commons