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Primary Sources

This guide is to help users to identify, locate, and use primary sources in their research.

Primary Sources by Format

Archives

Personal papers and organizational records.

Documents - Printed & Published

Texts of all varieties, including books, letters, pamphlets, periodicals, government documents, reports, printed ephemera, etc.

Maps

Printed, manuscript, online.

Objects & Artifacts

Physical objects of any vintage or variety.

Sound Recordings

Music, interviews, speeches, animals, nature, etc.

Visual Materials

Film, video, posters, prints, photos, cartoons, artworks, paintings, etc.

Examples of Primary Sources

The following list contains examples of the many formats of items that may be considered primary sources.  Thinking of these different categories of materials can help you imagine the various sources that might be available to you in your research.  Note that the same piece of evidence may be a primary source in one investigation and a secondary source in another.  Be creative in thinking about primary sources and adapt your search strategy to find specific formats of materials. 

  • Books and monographs
  • Correspondence (email, text messages, postcards, letters)
  • Dissertations
  • Government documents (reports, census data, testimony, laws, treaties)
  • Machine readable data files
  • Manuscripts and Archives, whether personal or family papers or  organizational records
  • Maps, architectural plans, and schematics
  • Moving Image Materials
  • Music
  • Objects and Artifacts
  • Printed Ephemera (leaflets, flyers, handbills, etc.)
  • Serials, including newspapers, periodicals, magazines, and scholarly  journals
  • Broadcast media, including tv and radio
  • Sound Recordings
  • Visual materials (prints, photographs, posters, artworks)

The Thrill of Discovery: Primary Sources

Chapter 6, "The Thrill of Discovery:  Primary Sources" in Jenny L. Presnell's The Information-Literate Historian: A Guide to Research for History Students (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) provides a thorough overview of primary sources.  The chapter covers definitions, categories of sources, locating materials, and evaluating sources.