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History: 79-291: Innovation and Entertainment: A Business History of American Popular Culture

Introduction to Primary Sources

This guide will introduce you to resources available through the University Libraries. 

What are primary sources?

Primary sources are the "materials on a topic upon which subsequent interpretations or studies are based, anything from firsthand documents such as poems, diaries, court records, and interviews to research results generated by experiments, surveys, ethnographies, and so on."*

Primary sources are records of events as they are first described, usually by witnesses or people who were involved in the event. Many primary sources were created at the time of the event but can also include memoirs, oral interviews, or accounts that were recorded later. 

Context Matters

It can sometimes be difficult to determine whether a particular source is primary or secondary, because the same source can be a primary source for one topic and a secondary source for another topic.  David McCullough’s biography, John Adams, could be a secondary source for a paper about John Adams but a primary source for a paper about how various historians have interpreted the life of John Adams.

Types of Primary Sources

Visual materials, such as photos, original artwork, posters, and films are important primary sources, not only for the factual information they contain, but also for the insight they may provide into how people view their world.  Primary sources may also include sets of data, such as census statistics, which have been tabulated but not interpreted. However, in the sciences or social sciences, primary sources also can report the results of an experiment. 

 

Examples of primary sources include:

  • diaries, journals, letters, interviews, speeches, memos, manuscripts and other first-person accounts
  • memoirs and autobiographies
  • official records such as government publications, census data, court reports, police records
  • minutes, reports, correspondence of an organization or agency
  • newspaper and magazine articles written during the time of the event
  • photographs, paintings, film and television programs, audio recordings which document an event
  • research such as opinion polls which document attitudes and thought during the time of an event
  • artifacts such as objects, tools, clothing, etc. of the time period

*From Hairston, Maxine and John J. Ruszkiewicz. The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers. 4th ed. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers, 1996, pg. 547.

Adapted from Georgetown University Library's guide Primary Sources

Using Primary Sources