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.

For years, GALE has digitized

primary source content

from the holdings of some of the world's largest

and most prominent libraries and archives.

Through our digital collections,

GALE makes available to researchers and students

millions of pages of primary source content,

some of which has never before been digitized.

What are primary sources?

In research, a primary source is a document or artifact

that has survived in its original form

and provides you, the researcher, a firsthand account

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

Examples of primary sources include personal accounts,

correspondences, news coverage,

documents, images, audio and video,

creative works, works of art and other artifacts,

and ephemera.

Let's take a closer look

at some examples of primary source material.

Letters and other correspondences are also primary sources,

like this letter from William Wilberforce,

as well as speeches and interviews

like this transcription of a 1935 radio broadcast.

Articles and notices published in newspapers,

magazines, and journals are primary sources

if they were written during the event or period

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

Here's coverage of the presidential election of 1800

and commodity prices from 1785,

both published in newspapers of the time.

Government and legal documents,

such as this court document from 1885,

are primary source documents,

as are maps, drawings, photographs,

audio recordings and video recordings

created during the period you're researching

or by the person you're researching,

like this map of central Africa

drawn around 1890.

Even creative works such as stories,

poems and songs,

and works of art are primary sources,

like this lithograph from 1850

or this sheet music from 1899.

Clothing, consumer items,

craft items, and other artifacts

like this Confederate Army major general's coat

as well as this medicine chest from the 1700s

and this early Bayer aspirin carton

from the early 1900s

are also primary sources.

Items such as brochures, catalogs,

campaign paraphernalia,

postcards, and posters advertising

or commemorating an event,

sometimes referred to as ephemera

since they were originally expected

to only have short term usefulness,

are also primary sources.

This advertisement and invoice

for wagon and farm equipment

from around 1890

and this women's suffrage poster

from around 1920 are great examples

of this type of primary source document.

As you can see,

primary sources paint a picture

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

Secondary sources on the other hand,

often based on primary sources,

were created at a later time

by a person who did not experience the event firsthand.

The following are generally considered secondary sources,

biographies, newspaper,

magazine, and journal articles

about an event or about a person

written at a later time,

essays, reviews, commentaries,

and works of criticism written at a later time,

entries from dictionaries, encyclopedia,

and other reference books,

as well as scholarly works and textbooks

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

While these kind of sources are thought of

as secondary sources

depending on what you're researching,

they at times can be used as primary sources

when taken as a historical record

of how people were interpreting that event

in a time earlier than ours.

Secondary source material,

unlike primary source material,

give another person's perspective,

interpretation, analysis,

or conclusions on an event, person, or period.

So remember, primary sources are documents

or artifacts that have survived in their original form

and provide firsthand accounts of events,

people, or a period.

They paint a picture of what life was like

at a given period in time,

and they allow you to develop your own perspectives,

interpretations, analysis,

or conclusions about the event, person,

or period you're researching.