This is the "Definitions and Distinctions" page of the "Primary Sources" guide.
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Primary Sources  

Primary sources are contemporary accounts of an event, written or depicted by someone who experienced or witnessed the event in question.
Last Updated: Feb 2, 2012 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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  • Reference and User Services Association
    Students and researchers now have greater access to primary source materials for historical research than ever before. The traditional use of sources available in print and microfilm continues to be the foundation for research, but in some cases documents, letters, maps, photographs of ancient artifacts and other primary material are available online in different formats from free websites or subscription services on the internet.
  • Primary Sources at Yale
    Yale offers a clear, visual guide that provides excellent examoles of all types of Primary sources.
  • Why Study History Through Primary Sources
    This is an excellent explanation of the value of primary sources regarding history research.
    Adapted from James Harvey Robinson, "The Historical point of View", in Readings in European History, Vol I, (Boston: Ginn, 1904), 1-13

Primary Sources:

Primary sources are contemporaneous accounts of an event, written by someone who experienced or witnessed the event in question. These original documents (i.e., they are not about another document or account) are often diaries, letters, memoirs, journals, speeches, manuscripts, interviews and other such unpublished works. They may also include published pieces such as newspaper or magazine articles (as long as they are written soon after the fact and not as historical accounts), photographs, audio or video recordings, research reports in the natural or social sciences, or original literary or theatrical works.


Secondary Sources:

The function of these is to interpret primary sources, and so can be described as at least one step removed from the event or phenomenon under review. Secondary source materials, then, interpret, assign value to, conjecture upon, and draw conclusions about the events reported in primary sources. These are usually in the form of published works such as journal articles or books, but may include radio or television documentaries, or conference proceedings.



Whether conducting research in the social sciences, humanities (especially history), arts, or natural sciences, the ability to distinguish between primary and secondary source material is essential. Basically, this distinction illustrates the degree to which the author of a piece is removed from the actual event being described, informing the reader as to whether the author is reporting impressions first hand (or is first to record these immediately following an event), or conveying the experiences and opinions of others—that is, second hand

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