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This tutorial will define what sources are considered primary and which ones are not and provide some instruction on how to find primary sources using the Library's resources.

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources provide first-hand evidence or knowledge of the event to which it refers, the time period in which it was created, the life of the author/creator of the source, or original research. Primary sources are recorded by participants or observers at the time of the event(s) and are free from interpretation by researchers and scholars.

The following are all examples of primary sources:

  • Autobiographies & memoirs
  • Journals & diaries
  • Personal narratives
  • Letters & other forms of correspondence
  • Interviews & oral histories
  • Conference proceedings & speeches
  • Company records
  • Government documents such as laws, cases, & treaties
  • Eyewitness accounts
  • Newspaper & magazine articles/accounts from the time period of the subject/event, including contemporary criticism of works of literature, art, & music.
  • Data (statistics, surveys, polls, scientific data)
  • Empirical scholarly works such as research articles, clinical reports, & case studies.
  • Literature/Novels & poems
  • Audio & visual materials such as photographs, artwork, news reports, films, music, cartoons, posters, & maps
  • Artifacts (manufactured items, clothing, furniture, tools, buildings & architecture)
  • Social media (tweets, posts, etc.)

Here are some examples of what are not considered primary sources:

  • Books, including biographies, textbooks, encyclopedias
  • Articles, such as literature reviews & commentaries
  • Non-contemporary criticism of works of literature, art, & music

Remember that context matters: For example, if you are researching the history of how evolution was taught in school, then the textbooks from the time periods would be considered a primary source for that topic but wouldn't be if you were just simply writing a paper about evolution.

Different disciplines define primary sources differently and therefore vary. For example, in the sciences a primary source describes or presents original research or experiments. Such research is often published as journal articles, which in other disciplines are considered secondary sources. 


Not sure if the source you found counts as primary or not? Use the chat feature on the left and ask us!

Where to Find Primary Sources

When it comes to finding primary resources, you have several options:

1. Use our Databases to Find Primary Sources: the Library provides you with access to a host of databases that house primary sources.

Click here to view the full list of databases that contain primary sources!

Once there, narrow it down according to the subject you're researching

2. Use secondary sources to find primary sources.  Just because a resource is a secondary source doesn't mean you can't use it to find primary sources.  See if your secondary sources:

  • Contain primary sources. A book about Martin Luther King Jr might contain reproductions of his letters, for instance. See if the book has an appendix that contains primary documents.
  • Cite primary sources. Secondary sources will often cite primary sources that you can look for and use in your own research. If you can't find the original text, ask a librarian for assistance.

When searching in the databases or on Google Scholar, you can search for primary sources with keywords such as:

• Correspondence                      • Interview                        • Speech                         • Work of Art   

• Personal Narrative                   • Report                            • Memoir                        • Legal Document      

• Document                                • Letter                              • Diary                            • Eyewitness Video

• Manuscript                               • Image                             • Data Set                      • Historical newspaper or magazine

Tip: Combine them with a keyword related to your topic, such as civil war AND letters, to get the best results.

Remember!  Books can be both primary and secondary, depending on your context. Be sure to analyze the source using the criteria established in this guide to determine which one it is.

3. Open Access Primary Sources: There are also a wealth of Open Access databases that host primary source materials, mostly made available through other libraries and nonprofits. Here are just a few to get started:

Tip: What is online is only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Archives and libraries around the World are home to incredible collections that might not be digitized yet, but that doesn't mean that you can't get access to them. Talk to one of our librarians about your research topic and we'll help you look for where primary sources beneficial to your research might be held.