Introduction to Primary Sources

This tutorial defines primary sources, explores common types of primary sources, and highlights the differences between primary source and secondary resources while discussing the purpose and use of each.


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For years, GALE has digitized

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primary source content

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from the holdings of some of the world's largest

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and most prominent libraries and archives.

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Through our digital collections,

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GALE makes available to researchers and students

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millions of pages of primary source content,

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some of which has never before been digitized.

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What are primary sources?

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In research, a primary source is a document or artifact

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that has survived in its original form

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and provides you, the researcher, a firsthand account

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of the event, person, or time period you're researching.

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Examples of primary sources include personal accounts,

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correspondences, news coverage,

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documents, images, audio and video,

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creative works, works of art and other artifacts,

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and ephemera.

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Let's take a closer look

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at some examples of primary source material.

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Letters and other correspondences are also primary sources,

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like this letter from William Wilberforce,

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as well as speeches and interviews

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like this transcription of a 1935 radio broadcast.

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Articles and notices published in newspapers,

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magazines, and journals are primary sources

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if they were written during the event or period

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or by people who witnessed the event you're researching.

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Here's coverage of the presidential election of 1800

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and commodity prices from 1785,

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both published in newspapers of the time.

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Government and legal documents,

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such as this court document from 1885,

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are primary source documents,

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as are maps, drawings, photographs,

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audio recordings and video recordings

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created during the period you're researching

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or by the person you're researching,

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like this map of central Africa

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drawn around 1890.

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Even creative works such as stories,

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poems and songs,

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and works of art are primary sources,

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like this lithograph from 1850

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or this sheet music from 1899.

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Clothing, consumer items,

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craft items, and other artifacts

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like this Confederate Army major general's coat

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as well as this medicine chest from the 1700s

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and this early Bayer aspirin carton

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from the early 1900s

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are also primary sources.

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Items such as brochures, catalogs,

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campaign paraphernalia,

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postcards, and posters advertising

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or commemorating an event,

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sometimes referred to as ephemera

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since they were originally expected

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to only have short term usefulness,

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are also primary sources.

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This advertisement and invoice

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for wagon and farm equipment

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from around 1890

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and this women's suffrage poster

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from around 1920 are great examples

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of this type of primary source document.

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As you can see,

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primary sources paint a picture

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of what life was like at a given period and time.

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Secondary sources on the other hand,

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often based on primary sources,

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were created at a later time

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by a person who did not experience the event firsthand.

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The following are generally considered secondary sources,

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biographies, newspaper,

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magazine, and journal articles

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about an event or about a person

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written at a later time,

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essays, reviews, commentaries,

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and works of criticism written at a later time,

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entries from dictionaries, encyclopedia,

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and other reference books,

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as well as scholarly works and textbooks

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that were not published during the time you're researching.

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While these kind of sources are thought of

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as secondary sources

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depending on what you're researching,

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they at times can be used as primary sources

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when taken as a historical record

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of how people were interpreting that event

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in a time earlier than ours.

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Secondary source material,

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unlike primary source material,

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give another person's perspective,

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interpretation, analysis,

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or conclusions on an event, person, or period.

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So remember, primary sources are documents

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or artifacts that have survived in their original form

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and provide firsthand accounts of events,

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people, or a period.

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They paint a picture of what life was like

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at a given period in time,

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and they allow you to develop your own perspectives,

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interpretations, analysis,

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or conclusions about the event, person,

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or period you're researching.