Why use primary resources?
Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They present original thinking, report a discovery, or share new information. Use primary sources in historical research, or researching precedent or context on a particular topic.
Primary sources are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. They are from the time period involved and have not been filtered through subsequent interpretation or evaluation.
Determining what is a primary source can be tricky and depends on the topic, subject, and discipline you are researching. The types of information that can be considered primary sources may vary depending on the subject or discipline. Also how you are using the material in your paper or project can effect this determination. For some papers or projects it may be important to view the original object but for others a primary source that has been scanned and is online is acceptable.
The types of information that can be considered primary sources may vary depending on the subject or discipline, and also on how you are using the material. For example:
- A magazine article reporting on recent studies linking the reduction of energy consumption to the compact fluorescent light bulb would be a secondary source.
- A research article or study proving this would be a primary source.
- However, if you were studying how compact fluorescent light bulbs are presented in the popular media, the magazine article could be considered a primary source.
Tip: If you are unsure if a source you have found is primary, talk to your instructor, librarian, or archivist.
Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories. Primary sources are distinguished from secondary sources, which are produced some time after an event, and serve to analyze or interpret primary sources.
Archives and Manuscripts consist of original unpublished, historical and contemporary material.
Primary sources in reproduction For some levels of research it is acceptable and appropriate to use primary sources that have been reproduced and published. A few examples include microfilmed newspaper articles, published diaries, and scanned images of original documents published in book form.
When beginning your research, searching for primary sources is similar to other kinds of research:
- Brainstorm the kinds of sources you might need. News sources? Journals from the time period? Government documents? Have a date range in mind to narrow your search.
- Diaries, letters, and other personal papers are often unique items held in archives or special collections. One trick is to google the name of the person you're researching and the word "papers." If they are being held at another institution, you might find out if they've been digitized or not.
- Brainstorm and track your keywords and subject terms. Use a thesaurus to think of more keywords or older terms you may not be familiar with, but may have been commonly used during the time period you are researching. Are the records likely to be in another language or another alphabet? Do you have expertise in this language? Knowing ahead of time might help with your search.
- Think about where records might be held. Because of historical colonialism and imperialism, some communities may not have control over their own records and materials. They may be held in another country entirely.
- Arrange a visit to our Archives and Special Collections if your topic is related to the University or Minnesota history.
- Browse our collections of online primary source databases.
Searching in the Libraries collections
The catalog provides many types of primary sources: original archival materials, print materials with the original texts, printed facsimiles, and online resources that link to digital facsimiles. You can recognize such an item if the word "sources" appears in the subject. That word and certain others, especially when searched as a subject keyword, will help narrow your search results to primary sources.
When searching our collection, use the Libraries' Advanced Search and enter your keywords, plus the subject term source to your search. For example, this is an Advanced search with two subject contains filters set as "Holocaust’ and ‘sources." The date range is set to start "1937" and end "1950."
Start with a broad search; you can always narrow it further after you begin searching.
For some topics, try a more specific subject keyword instead, for example:
- personal narratives
Depending on the focus of your research, there are other formats that may serve as primary source material. Here are some examples:
- archaeological artifacts
- birth certificates
- census material
- congressional/parliamentary hearings and reports
- county records
- documentary photographs
- government documents
- news sources
- oral histories
- organizational minutes
- records of organizations
- voting records
Look for subject guides in the arts, humanities, social sciences and professional programs. Each list varies and may include recommended primary source databases or other resources in that field. Even though a list may not include a primary source section, the librarian for that subject area can suggest resources and/or strategies for your topic. Consult the complete list of subject librarians if you need assistance in other areas of research.
History, Humanities, Social Sciences
Primary sources in these disciplines are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories.
Examples include: Letters, manuscripts, diaries, rare books, historical photographs, first-hand accounts, or documentary sources on a subject, person, event or issue; newspapers written at the time of an event, song, or film from time period, historical maps, government reports or data, and more.
Health Sciences, Sciences, Engineering
Primary sources in the sciences are original materials or information on which other research is based. Primary sources are also sets of data, such as health statistics, which have been tabulated, but not interpreted.
Examples include: Journal articles of original research (written by person who did the research), patents, conference papers, dissertations, technical reports, or something personal like Einstein’s diary).