Primary Sources: What is a Primary Source?


This guide is designed to give you an overview of what primary sources are, how they are different from secondary sources, how they can be used, and how you can find them in the library.  There is no single strategy to finding primary sources, and no single place to look. As a result, primary sources can sometimes be difficult to find, but can also be some of the most rewarding (and fun) results of your research. Be sure to start your research early so you have time to find and analyze your primary sources.

What Is A Primary Source?

Primary sources present first-hand accounts or direct evidence. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented, and can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later.


Secondary sources interpret and analyze primary sources. Because they are often written long afterward by parties not directly involved (but who may have special expertise), they can provide historical context or critical perspectives. Secondary sources can include pictures, quotes, or reproductions of primary sources.

Depending on the subject (or your purpose in using the source), sources can fall into both categories. For example, an art critic's review of an exhibition opening is a primary source, because it is commenting directly on a current event; whereas an article discussing an artist's body of works which includes information about that exhibition would be considered a secondary source as it is after the fact.

Credit for definitions: Yale University Library, Art History LibGuide


This short video will give you an overview of what primary sources are and how they are different than secondary sources.

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