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Primary Sources -- History and Humanities

Complete guide to using primary sources in historical research

Examples

Examples of Primary SourcesExamples of Secondary Sources
Original research articles published in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals

Scholarly articles which critique original research articles

Diaries Review articles from scholarly journals
Correspondence, including Letters

Book or movie reviews

Interviews Dictionaries (can also be a tertiary source)
Personal narratives Directories (can also be a tertiary source)
Memoirs Encyclopedias (can also be a tertiary source)
Autobiographies Textbooks (can also be a tertiary source)
Speeches
Photographs

Overview

A primary source provides a first-hand record or report of what was done, thought and felt at a particular time and place.  These provide the raw material for interpretation and analysis by historians.

We cannot always gain direct access to an immediate, eye-witness account, especially for events hundreds of years ago.  So usually we try to get as close as possible, realizing that we are relying on memories, editing, and sometimes even translating.

The first step in finding primary sources in many cases will be to take a look at some secondary sources and encyclopedic sources on your topic.  If those sources are written by historians they will include references to useful primary sources.

The materials below provide additional tips for locating primary sources:

Definition of Primary Sources

Primary source literature in the humanities:

  • provides a first-hand record or report of what was done, thought and felt at a particular time and place
  • provides the raw material for interpretation and analysis by researchers in the arts, theatre, music, philosophy, and history.
  • for some literary scholars can include the primary form of a specific text, such as the final draft or the first publication of a work.

Secondary source literature in the humanities:

  • summarizes, compares, critiques, or interprets the primary literature.

Tertiary sources in the humanities:

  • are collections of primary and/or secondary sources.
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