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What Are Primary Sources?

A primary source is any material used for research that is considered to be an original document. Most often, primary sources are considered when writing history. Research distinguishes between primary and secondary sources. A modern history of the Roman Empire, for example, is a type of secondary source. A letter from Julius Caesar would be considered to be a primary source.

Examples of primary sources are:

  • Newspapers
  • Speeches
  • Original Documents
  • Letters

Primary sources connect a researcher to the past in an intimate, almost first person way. If one wanted to study the Civil War, newspapers of the day, letters, diaries, and Lincoln’s speeches could all be employed as primary sources. This allows an historian to develop an insider’s understanding of the past without the bias of another researcher.

Primary Source

The term primary source has been adopted by disciplines outside of history. Other social sciences consider a primary source to be any data that has been collected to analyze the relationship between people and their environment, such as demographic data. In the natural sciences, primary sources are considered to be original findings, including the original publication of a scientist’s results.

One the most frequent places to find primary sources would be in an archive. Increasingly, archives are being digitized. The Library of Congress, for example, maintains several online collections, including photographs, recordings, and the papers of George Washington.