Find Primary Sources

Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during a historical event or time period.

A primary source reflects the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer. The following list gives examples of primary sources. If in doubt, ask your professor.

Primary Sources
  • Diaries, journals, speeches, interviews, letters, memos, manuscripts, and other papers in which individuals describe events they were participants in or observers of.
  • Memoirs and autobiographies. These may be less reliable than diaries or letters since they are usually written long after events occurred and may be distorted by bias, dimming memory, or the revised perspective that may come with hindsight. On the other hand, they are sometimes the only source for certain information.
  • Records of or information collected by government agencies. Many kinds of records (births, deaths, marriages, permits and licences issued, census data, etc.) document conditions in the society.
  • Records of organizations. The minutes, reports, correspondence, etc. of an organization or agency serve as an ongoing record of the activity and thinking of that organization or agency.
  • Published materials (books, magazines, journal articles, and newspaper articles) written at the time about a particular event. While these are sometimes accounts by participants, in most cases, they are written by journalists or other observers. The important thing is to distinguish between material written at the time of an event, as a type of report, and material written much later, as historical analysis.
  • Photographs, audio recordings, and moving pictures or video recordings documenting what happened.
  • Materials that document the attitudes and popular thought of a historical time period. If you are attempting to find evidence documenting the mentality or psychology of a time or of a group (evidence of a world view, a set of attitudes, or the popular understanding of an event or condition), the most obvious source is public opinion polls taken at the time. Since these are generally very limited in availability and in what they reveal, it is also possible to make use of ideas and images conveyed in the mass media, and even in literature, film, popular fiction, textbooks, etc. Again, the point is to use these sources, written or produced at the time, as evidence of how people were thinking.
  • Research data, such as anthropological field notes, results of scientific experiments, and other scholarly activity of the time.
  • Artifacts of all kinds: physical objects, buildings, furniture, tools, appliances and household items, clothing, and toys.

Ask a librarian to find out which library databases are great for finding primary sources. Also try a Google search, e.g., modern europe [or your topic] and primary sources.