What is a Primary Source?
A primary source is a document, text, map, image, or artifact that provides evidence about the past that was created during the time period being studied OR at a later date by a participant or eyewitness to the event.
Government documents are a specialized type of primary source, providing direct evidence of the functions, policies and actions of a given government.
A primary source has not been interpreted by a non-observer or non-participant’s account or later observation - in other words, a book by a contemporary author that discusses the impact of the Declaration of Independence is NOT a primary source.
Note that while primary sources are valuable in research, they may not always be accurate!
Image of the Declaration of Independence taken from the National Archives: http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/charters_downloads.html
What is NOT a Primary Source?
Here's a list of sources you may encounter, which, while helpful and useful for researching aspects of your topic, are NOT considered Primary Source materials. Remember, if you have a questions about whether something counts as a Primary Source, your instructor has the final word (although a Librarian can certainly provide advice!).
- A dictionary or encyclopedia article (these are sometimes referred to as "background" sources, since they provide an overview, or background, on a given topic, without the depth needed for a research paper).
- A textbook that contain data or information drawn from primary sources.
- Any NON-eyewitness account that relies on information from other people or sources.
- An account that includes an opinion of what the writer believes ocurred during an event, or an assessment of what the writer feels is the influence/legacy/meaning of the event, by a writer who was NOT present at the event in question.
- A magazine or newspaper account summarizing the event. HOWEVER: depending on the event you are researching, newspaper articles can provide an indication of how the event was viewed at the time, such as how a speech or decision made by leaders was received, how the general public reacted to a given event, or how a community or group was affected by the event.
Why are Primary Sources Important to My Research?
Primary sources provide us with a snapshot of history on the topics we're interested in. These primary sources, be they documents or artifacts, stand alone, without context or interpretation, and give us a chance to see firsthand something from another time period. Since we're looking at the object or document itself, we are the primary interpreters of the meaning embodied in that item - helping us realize that different eyes can see different meaning and significance in any given object or document. It's up to us to analyze the document or artifact, set it into the context we know (other related items we've seen or read, other information we have about the time period, and what we know about the person or people who created the document), and come to a conclusion about its significance.
Helpful Tips from a History Instructor!
Here's some "Insider's Advice" from a current instructor of History here at USMA. History instructors LOVE seeing cadets use a variety of sources with different perspectives, including:
- Diaries (written at the time of the events), for what they reveal about the person you are researching.
- Military orders, because they were written for a specific audience and show intent.
- Letters, also because they were written for a specific audience and show intent, however: be aware of/consider the intended audience when using.
- AARs (After Action Reports) & Congressional documents, for the action, execution and reception they reveal regarding an event.
- Newspapers, because they indicate the reception of an event, decision, law, etc. Be careful though: bias may affect the information presented.
- Memoirs, for their distance from the event, meaning the writer had time to reflect on past actions. However, note that this reflection at a chronological distance may be defensive (to preserve a reputation) rather than critical.