Skip to Main Content

Primary Sources

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

Evaluating Documents

Whether using primary or secondary sources, in print or online, an essential step in the research process is evaluating your sources.  Good scholarship requires careful reading and critical analysis of information.

Basic evaluation criteria for all sources include the following questions:

Adapted from The Information-Literate Historian by Jenny L. Presnell (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2007)

Author Authority 

  • Who created the item? 
  • What is his or her affiliation? 
  • What is his or her relationship to the information contained in the source?

Audience and Purpose

  • Who is the intended audience? 
  • Why was the item created?

Accuracy and Completeness

  • Is the evidence reliable? 
  • Are the important points covered? 
  • How does the source compare to other similar sources?

Footnotes and Documentation

  • Are the author's sources clearly identified with complete citations to allow you to find the original source yourself?

Perspective and Bias

  • How do the author's bias and perspective inform the arguments and evidence presented?

Printed & Published Documents

Primary source documents can be letters, diaries, newspapers, speeches, interviews, memoirs, minutes, fliers, manifestos, reports, pamphlets, handbills, government documents, or other types of texts.  They can be in the original -- often hand-written form and housed in a library's special collections department -- or published in print or online. 


(Handwritten, typed, or electronic, business or personal, published or unpublished) is direct communication between people and/or organizations.  Handwritten and typed letters were a primary means of communication between people before email.  Scholars examining the colonial history of the U.S., for example, have used published collections of letters by significant historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson as their primary sources. The letters of lesser known people, such as civil war soldiers, have been used by historians to understand how national events affect people in a personal way. 


Show the private opinions of people and also add insight into historical figures and events.  Keep in mind that the diaries of leading figures such as US presidents or other public figures may have been written with an eye toward publication.  The diaries of average people, neither famous nor powerful, are valuable for their insights into everyday life of ordinary people.


Defined in the SAA Online Glossary as materials, "created for a specific, limited purpose, and generally designed to be discarded after use," are useful sources for researchers.  Printed ephemera includes leaflets, flyers, handbills, advertisements, pamphlets, ticket stubs, menus, receipts, and other items.  Collections of printed ephemera will frequently be found in a library's special collections department alongside the archival collections. Consult the websites of the Tamiment and Fales Libraries at NYU for information on holdings.   


Often referred to as the first draft of history, can be used to examine how events were immediately translated to the public since they include a combination of interviews, images, and first hand reporting.  Newspapers are available in their original print editions (and may be in poor condition), in microfilm, online in freely available websites (such as the Brooklyn Daily Eagle) or in subscription databases.


Are also important primary sources. Periodicals such as Vital Speeches of the Day, which is available in print and online through a subscription database, collect and publish speeches and show how national and international issues are articulated to the public.  In the 19th century, and to a lesser extent today, newspapers would regularly publish the full text of speeches by prominent national leaders.


Frequently published in periodicals, newspapers, online, and in books, are highly useful for researchers.  Interviewees share their opinions, recollections, and ideas.  Diplomats and statesmen, for example, sometimes provide revealing insights into international affairs that go beyond routine newspaper accounts.

Government documents 

Including books, pamphlets, reports, statistics, surveys, serials, congressional debates and testimony, national laws and international treaties, and other documents published by local, state, and federal government agencies represent a rich source of information for researchers on virtually every subject.  Government documents are available in print, on microfilm, and online.  Consult the website of the U.S. Government Documents Library in Bobst for research guides and reference assistance.  


Are another important primary source. Many people, especially those who are well known and/or are involved in national and international events, write their memoirs when they retire from the limelight, providing detailed background information on past events.

Alternative Press 

Publications, such as newspapers, newsletters, journals, bulletins, and house organs published by organizations, individuals, committees, and activists outside of the mainstream media, are valuable sources for studying cultural movements advocating for social and political change.  Researchers will find early expressions of progressive ideas in the alternative press, some of which eventually succeed in changing the tide of public opinion, and others that did not.  NYU Libraries holds significant collections of alternative press in the Tamiment and Fales Libraries.  See Tamiment's Serials Research Guide for details on holdings.


Can be a great resource for discovering the ideas being promoted at a point in time to sway opinions.  Often sporting dramatic graphics, vivid cover art, persuasive text, and an urgent message, pamphlets are worth seeking out. Though pamphlets were relatively cheap to produce and abundantly published, they can be difficult to find in libraries.  The collections of NYU Libraries and consortium libraries, most notably the New-York Historical Society, have wonderfully rich collections of pamphlets.  Look for cataloged pamphlets and subject collections of pamphlets in BobCat.  To find pamphlets on labor history and progressive politics from NYU's Tamiment Library, consult the Pamphlets Research Guide for the collection.