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Definitions

Primary Sources

A primary source is a record of an event, an occurrence, or a time period produced by a participant or observer at the time. Typically, one thinks of primary sources as unique documents or manuscript material (such as letters, diaries, journals, writings, speeches, photographs, scrapbooks, etc.), or the historic records (archives) of an organization (such as correspondence, memoranda, minutes, annual reports, etc.). But primary sources can also include government documents, artwork, artifacts, maps, music, audiovisual materials (film, audio and video tape), and electronic computer files.

Letter from Mary Lyon to Hannah White, 1834

Click on thumbnails to see larger images and captions

League of Women Shoppers brochure, circa 1937

Primary sources can be found in published forms as well, such as newspapers, magazine articles, pamphlets and other printed materials produced during the time period under study. They can include published letters, oral histories, or diaries. Often primary sources are reproduced in an alternate format such as microfilm or digitized materials.

It is important to be aware of the historical context when studying primary sources, as well as the perspective of the creator. Not all primary sources are necessarily accurate or factual, and two observers can have two very different interpretations of an event. Researchers should also be careful to consider the authenticity of materials. Documents and images, especially digitized images, could be altered.

Studio portrait photograph of Elliott Snell

   See more samples of primary sources

Secondary Sources

A secondary source is one that interprets or compiles information about events or time periods. A secondary source often relies upon primary sources to gather data. Two examples of secondary sources are encyclopedias and biographies.


 

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Last update: May 24, 2004