Primary sources and why you should use them

Primary sources are original documents or artefacts. They were created at the time period you are studying. Primary sources are contemporary, created by someone who witnessed a historical event, lived in the period under study, or created art or objects which are studied.

How do I know if a source is a primary source?

Generally speaking, if your primary source is in text format, it will not contain any footnotes, references or citations. A primary source is anything original which comes from the period or event which you are studying.

Examples of primary sources:

  • Art
  • Letters
  • Eyewitness accounts
  • Audio or video recordings
  • Photographs
  • Diaries
  • Interviews
  • Legal and/or financial documents
  • Results of experiments
  • Architectural plans or drawings
  • Newspaper articles published immediately after the event
  • Historical artefacts such as clothing samples, fragments of clay, cutlery, crockery, remnants of dwellings

How do I find primary sources?

I have often found that primary sources are come across in the opposite way you might expect them to be. Using secondary sources as your starting point will direct you to the primary source(s) through footnotes, references and citations. A history book will often refer to the letters, diaries or accounts of historical figures, so this gives you some clues as to where the author got their information. Reading the bibliography will point you in the direction of the original texts, so you can follow the trail of breadcrumbs to the primary source.

If you want to start at the primary source then here are some samples of starting points for you:

Field of studyPrimary sources
ArtOriginal painting, sculpture
HistoryFabric remnants, letters, photographs
LawEyewitness accounts, bank statements, police reports, court reports, transcript of call to emergency services
ScienceData from experiments, method of experimentation
ArchitectureBlueprints, sketches, building foundations
EnglishOriginal text without revisions, annotations or translations

Why do I need primary sources?

You’re probably wondering why you can’t use books and articles written by someone else as your main source of information. You can, but your research won’t be as sound as it would be if you use primary sources. That’s because books and articles are written by people - people who have bias, conscious or subconscious - and their accounts can be subjective.

Going back to the original provides you with the opportunity to view the source as it was, unaltered. This enables you to interpret the event or object without the opinions of someone else clouding your judgement. Generally speaking, of course.

How do I access primary sources?

This depends on the type of source that you want to use. Often, you will have to make an appointment with the museum, library or institution that owns the source you wish to examine. Generally, access to primary sources is given with supervision, to ensure that the materials are not damaged in any way. If you are examining primary sources relating to a court case or anything which might be ‘sensitive’ or involving people who are still alive, you may have to sign a confidentiality contract.

Do I need to reference primary sources?

Yes. You need to reference a primary source just as you would a secondary source. Primary sources are materials just like any other, and as such you need to reference the material just as you would a book or article.

Most primary sources come with a unique code, and this code is their identifier. This differs from depository to depository, so make sure you use the correct code depending on the place you access the source. Then you apply this identifier in the way in which your citation style requires, such as APA, Harvard, Chicago, etc. For example:

Museum exhibits (APA style) [Terracotta statuette of a woman]. (2nd century B.C.). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.

Works of art (APA style) Inness, G. (ca. 1878). Autumn Oaks [Oil on canvas]. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.

Letters (APA style) Highsmith, C. M. (2015). View of the rushing Animas River and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (D&SNG), a narrow-gauge railroad that operates 45.2 miles of track between Durango and Silverton in southwest Colorado. Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.