Historical Primary Sources

Information on primary sources--what they are, how to find them, and how to use and cite them.

Primary Sources at Johns Hopkins

Primary Source Types

Archives and Manuscripts

Manuscript traditionally refers to any document written by hand (from the latin manus) including letters, scrolls, ledgers, and other formats. With the evolution of print and computer technology, manuscripts generally encompass any unpublished documents, even if they are typed or word-processed.

Books and Pamphlets

Books are printed, published materials, from incunabula (printed books prior to 1501) to modern times. While modern scholarly books are generally used as secondary sources, historical books can be excellent primary sources. Pamphlets are short, unbound books that focus on a single subject like Thomas Paine’s famous Common Sense and Frederick Douglass’ The Constitution of the United States with all the Acts of Congress Relating to Slavery.

Periodicals

Journals, newspapers, magazines, and other recurring publications all fall within this category. Depending on their publication date and your research question, periodicals can serve as secondary or primary sources.

Maps

Political, economic, social, or physical geographies are represented in space and place through maps. Just like other documents, maps are created with particular biases and purposes and need to be closely evaluated as sources.

Material Objects

Another vast category, material objects can include items like board games and paper dolls, furniture, plant specimens, clothing, or even human hair!

Visual Materials

Materials that are primarily conveyed visually, rather than in text, such as paintings, drawings, prints, lithographs, woodcuts, or photographs. Searching and “reading” these materials can require additional skills due to their non-textual nature.

Oral Histories

Either recordings or transcripts, oral histories are first person accounts of ones life and the events and moments they witnessed or participated in. Often oral histories collections will center on a particular theme, like the Native Americans Oral History Collections.

Music and Sound

Sound recordings bring words and music to life. Recordings can include interviews, radio broadcasts, music, and speeches.

Film

Home videos, news and television broadcasts, documentaries and other moving images can aid researchers studying the 20th and 21st centuries. With digitized collections like Socialism on Film, you don't even need historic players.

Data

Data is often created digital today, but historic data sets can be on paper or other formats. Structured information, data is gathered by various types of experimentation and observation. Historians often engage with data from census records, economic and governmental agencies, public institutions, and other sources to understand historic patterns and trends.

Ephemera

These are things that are not meant to last--lottery tickets, business cards, money, tweets, or fliers. Documents or digital materials that are intended to be temporary, transient, or incidental all fall within this category, which is precisely what can make them so interesting as sources.

Government Documents

As their name suggests, government documents are publications by a governmental body. They span from photographs, data, and maps to laws, budgets, and records of legislative or other governing bodies. Many kinds of records (births, deaths, marriages; permits and licenses issued; census data, etc.) document societal conditions. Due to their vast scope, the material found in government documents can be rich, even for topics that are not explicitly political.