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Using and Understanding Primary Sources


This guide explains how to understand, analyze, contextualize, and interpret primary sources being used in historical research projects. It will introduce you to the types of primary sources that are most commonly used in historical research and explain how to extract information and make meaning from them. New content and additional sources will be added regularly, so keep checking back for updates!

This guide is intended to be thorough but not exhaustive. In most cases, researchers will need to contact the Center about their topic of study in order to effect a thorough search. If you are unable to find the information you're looking for after consulting the resources in this guide, please reach out to us so that we may assist you.

What is a primary source?

Primary sources are defined as "materials in a variety of formats, created at the time under study, that serve as original evidence documenting a time period, event, people, idea, or work. Primary sources can be printed materials (such as books and ephemera), manuscript/archival materials (such as diaries or ledgers), audio/visual materials (such as recordings or films), artifacts (such as clothes or personal belongings), or born-digital materials (such as emails or digital photographs). Primary sources can be found in analog, digitized, and born-digital forms."1

Secondary sources are related to primary sources, but they differ in that secondary sources focus on providing commentary and interpretation on primary sources. Secondary sources usually involve someone critically evaluating, synthesizing, and/or analyzing one or more primary sources, and thus serve as a critical interpretation of a historical topic rather than original evidence. Some common examples of secondary sources include scholarly articles, textbooks, dissertations and theses, magazine and news articles.

 It is important to remember that the delineation between primary and secondary sources is not black and white. Any source can be primary or secondary, depending on the research need. What makes a source "primary" can vary by discipline, how the source is being used in a particular context, and the interplay with secondary sources. Sometimes secondary sources are treated as primary sources in the absence of any other original documentary evidence of a particular topic or event. Sometimes the same source will be primary or secondary depending on the question being asked; for instance, a newspaper article from an out-of-state newspaper covering the 1898 Wilmington Coup D'état might be considered a secondary source by a researcher exploring the local Black community's response to the Coup, while a researcher analyzing the rhetoric used by 19th century journalists to describe racial violence in the American South would cite the same article as a primary source. It is your job as a researcher to determine whether a particular source may be primary or secondary in the context of your project.

1 This definition comes from the SAA-ACRL/RBMS Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy (2018).