Primary Sources

Newspapers, Archival Documents, Personal Papers, Census Data

What is a Primary Source?

Examples of Primary Sources

Definition of Primary Sources:  

A primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event.

First hand accounts or original sources includes:

  • Original Documents, including eyewitness accounts or the first record of events such as diaries, speeches, letters, manuscripts, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, or official records
  • Creative Works such as literature, music, art, film, etc.
  • Relics or Artifacts such as pottery, furniture, clothing, and buildings
  • Data from original research whether statistical or scientific

Primary Sources by Discipline

Different academic disciplines have different definitions of what constitutes a primary source:

In the Humanities (history, literature, religion), primary sources focus on original documents or accounts contemporary to a specific event or an individual’s life. Terms such as “eyewitness” or “firsthand” are also commonly used to describe these sources. Autobiographical accounts written at a later date are also considered primary sources. Letters, diaries, journal entries, public records as well as contemporaneous newspapers articles offer solid examples of this type of primary source. Fictional works such as short stories or novels written during that specific time period constitute primary documents, too.

In the Arts (art, dance, music, theatre), primary sources are as diverse as the various disciplines in the category. They may include paintings, sculpture, prints, performances, video or audio recordings, scripts, or musical scores.

Social Sciences (psychology, sociology, education) place a heavy emphasis on unanalyzed data sets as primary sources. Numerical data sets such as census figures, opinion polls, surveys or interview transcripts constitute this type of raw, uninterpreted data. A researcher’s field notes are also primary sources in the social sciences.

In the Sciences (biology, ecology, chemistry), primary source documents focus on original research, ideas, or findings published in academic journals. These articles mark the first publication of such research; and they detail the researcher’s methodology and results. Plant or mineral samples and other artifacts are primary sources as well.

Borrowed from Berea College Hutchins Library

Primary Sources in STEM

Logo for STEM

Examples of STEM primary resources

  • Papers and proceedings from scientific conferences or meetings
  • Journal articles (original research, not review or meta-analysis)
  • Dissertations and Theses
  • Technical Reports
  • Patents
  • Lab notebooks and notes
  • Correspondence, diaries

Examples of Primary Sources

Primary Sources come in many different formats.  They can include:

Photographs Newspapers
Diaries or Journals Correspondence (Letters, Email, or Text Messages)
Manuscripts Autobiographies
Oral Histories Speeches
Maps (Dating to the Period) Official Records or Ledgers
Patents Real Estate Records
Art Work Music
Poems Novels
Original Research  Census Data



Primary sources are documents, artifacts, or data created during the specific time period being studied. Oftentimes, documents from the first publication cycle – newspaper articles, letters, or research notes – are considered primary sources.

"A primary source is raw evidence that has not yet been interpreted."

-- Meghan Courtney, Outreach Archivist, Walter P. Reuther Library

Primary Resources Presentation Slides

What is NOT a Primary Source?

It is often confusing to determine if something is a primary source.  Materials that are NOT primary sources include:

  • Books written after a historical event by someone who was not involved in the event.  Books are considered Secondary Sources.
  • An interview with someone who has an opinion or is knowledgeable about a historical event, even if that person is an expert or a historian on the event. 
  • Wikipedia entries.  While these entries are a great source to find out the basics of the topic of your study, they are not Primary Sources.
  • Statistics compiled about a historical event (for example, a tally of the number of dead in a battle)
  • Encyclopedia entries

What is a Secondary Source?

Definition of a secondary source:

A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them. Some examples of secondary sources include:

  • A journal/magazine article which interprets or reviews previous findings 
  • A history textbook 
  • A book about the effects of WWI 
  • Biographies
  • Encyclopedia articles

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Differentiating Primary and Secondary Sources in Each Discipline

While primary sources offer a firsthand account, secondary sources are written after the fact. Secondary sources analyze, interpret, explain, or analyze a primary source, event or individual. These resources represent a second publication cycle, tasked with presenting an argument or to persuade the reader.

Discipline Primary Source Secondary Source
Archaeology farming tools treatise on innovative analysis of neolithic artifacts
Art sketch book conference proceedings on French Impressionists
History Emancipation Proclamation (1863) book on the anti-slavery struggle
Journalism interview biography of publisher Katherine Myer Graham
Law legislative hearing law review article on anti-terrorism legislation
Literature novel literary criticism on The Name of the Rose
Music score of an opera biography of composer Georges Bizet
Political Science public opinion poll newspaper article on campaign finance reform
Rhetoric speech editorial comment on Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech
Sociology voter registry Ph.D. dissertation on Hispanic voting patterns

Borrowed from Indiana University Bloomington Libraries