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Primary Sources

What is a Primary Source?

Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred.  Memoirs and oral histories produced many years after these events are also considered to be primary sources.  A primary source provides a first hand account of an historical event and is valued in historical research for the insight it may provide to times past.  Some examples of primary sources are:

  • letters, journals, or diaries  
  • manuscripts
  • newspapers or news film footage
  • speeches or interviews
  • memoirs or autobiographies
  • government documents produced by Congress or the President such as laws, minutes of meetings, transcriptions or recordings of conversations
  • photographs
  • audio recordings, video recordings, or films
  • research data 
  • artifacts such as works of art including paintings, sculpture, fiction
  • memorabilia, antiques, clothing, relics, jewelry, pottery, buildings

Finding Primary Sources in Books

Search the Library Catalog to find primary sources in the SMC Library.  Put in the topic you are interested in along with one of the following terms:

  • sources
  • personal narratives
  • autobiography
  • correspondence
  • diaries
  • documentary history

To find books at other libraries, search WorldCat or Google Book Search 

News Articles as Primary Sources

Articles in newspapers and magazines from the time period can serve as primary sources, particularly if the reporter was an eyewitness to events.  These databases include period articles:

Primary Sources on the Web

How does a secondary source differ from a primary source?

A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. Secondary sources are one step removed from the event. Examples include a book about the effects of World War I written years later by a historian; a journal article which interprets another scientist’s experiment or medical research; a biography of an author, actress, or scholar. Some types of secondary sources are book reviews, histories, literary criticism, and encyclopedias.

Maintained by John Payne

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