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MPS Betsy and Bill Vorsheck Library/Research Center: Primary and Secondary Sources

What's a Primary Source? What's a Secondary Source?

Princeton University defines a primary source as "a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study.  These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event." They can also be written or created by people at a later date who experienced or lived through the event

So if you're studying George Washington, his diaries and letters would be considered primary sources.  Original government documents; newspaper articles from the time or place in question; speeches; and manuscripts would all be considered primary sources.   "In general, these are documents that were created by the witnesses or first recorders of these events," notes the library at the University of Illinois.  Similarly, if you were studying the works of author Ernest Hemingway, his novels, original manuscripts, rough drafts, and notes would be excellent examples of primary sources.

Secondary sources are removed from the time, person, or place one is studying.  The Ohio Historical Society defines secondary sources as a "source created by someone either not present when the event took place or removed by time from the event."  Examples of secondary sources would be textbooks, biographies, magazine articles, literary criticisms, or encyclopedias.  A biography about George Washington or a published analysis of Hemingway's books are examples of secondary sources. 

Think of it this way: scholars and writers use primary sources to write effective secondary sources.

Identifying Your Source

From Hartness Library -

Primary Sources on the Web

The Internet is awash in primary source materials.  Below is just a sampling of some of the better online primary-source collections. 

American Memory - This is a primary-source repository hosted by the Library of Congress. It has over 70 collections of documents, photographs, recorded sound, and images from United States history.  The Primary Source Sets and Collection Connections offers even more resources.

American Studies Web: Historical and Archival Resources An extensive list of links to historical studies, archival resources and general history resources in the field of American history.

History Matters - Hundreds of first-person testimonials dating throughout American history as well as thousands of other primary sources. Also links to articles and essays on the web regarding a variety of historical topics related to the U.S.

The Avalon Project is a Yale University website that offers an enormous collection of primary sources related to law, diplomacy, and history.  This site represents over 6,000 years worth of information pertaining to politics, law, diplomacy, warfare, religious doctrine, decrees, and official government documents.

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) showcases digitized archives of important U.S. government materials, including documents, photographs, images, maps, audio clips, letters, speeches, and films.

The Perseus Project is a collection of online resources for focusing on the ancient world. Materials include ancient texts and translations, maps, articles, essays, and images from over 70 museums around the world.

The Labyrinth is collection of medieval resources includes an electronic library of poetry and prose in medieval languages, on-line bibliographies, professional directories and news about medieval studies, links to related teaching resources, and information on medieval cultures.

The New Deal Network contains hundreds of primary sources related to the Depression era and the New Deal, including letters, photographs, posters, political cartoons, government documents, speeches, and more.  You can also find background information on New Deal programs.

The Internet Modern History Sourcebook, hosted by Fordham University, features thousands of primary sources related to the medieval period all the way to the 20th century.  One of the premiere primary source repositories on the web.

Two Types of Sources

Citing Primary Sources

How do you cite an 18th-century political cartoon?  How do you cite a one-hundred-year-old map? Citing primary sources can be a little tricky sometimes.  Nonetheless, you STILL need to cite the source.

The U.S. Library of Congress (LOC) offers a very useful guide when it comes to citing  primary sources.  The website focuses on citing digitized primary sources (e.g. a scan of an original letter).

A Guide to Citing Primary Sources