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Primary Sources

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

Primary Sources Definition

What are Primary sources? 

Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to the truth of what actually happened during an historical event or time period. Primary source is a term used in a number of disciplines to describe source material that is closest to the person, information, period, or idea being studied.  A primary source (also called original source) is a document, recording, artifact, or other source of information that was created at the time under study, usually by a source with direct personal knowledge of the events being described. It serves as an original source of information about the topic.

Similar definitions are used in library science, and other areas of scholarship. In journalism, a primary source can be a person with direct knowledge of a situation, or a document created by such a person. Primary sources are distinguished from secondary sources, which cite, comment on, or build upon primary sources, though the distinction is not a sharp one.

Newspaper Research

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection

Woman in dressing gown sitting and man in striped robe standing, reaching towards the woman. Both are acting in a scene from the play Othello.

TITLE: [Scene from Othello with Paul Robeson as Othello and Uta Hagen as Desdemona, Theatre Guild Production, Broadway, 1943-44] SOURCE:Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection of The New York Public Library is one of the largest and most comprehensive archives devoted to the theatrical arts. This image is a work of an employee of the United States Farm Security Administration or Office of War Information domestic photographic units, created during the course of the person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain.


Historical Databases

Newspaper advertisement depicting three mermaids in the sea with a ship in the background.

An advert for P.T. Barnum's "Feejee Mermaid" in 1842 or thereabout. Author: P. T. Barnum or an employee, Source: Newspaper advert This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

Letters & Diaries /Oral Histories

Gale Primary Sources

Victorian Popular Culture

Historical Image Collections

Newspaper advertisement for the Washington Theater's performance of Hamlet featuring Charlotte Cushman., The American actress Charlotte Cushman advertised in William Shakespeare's Hamlet at the Washington Theater in 1861.  Author:Washington Theater, SOURCE:Public Library of Congress. this image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.

Link to Bobst Special Collections

Books Containing Primary Source Documents