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Primary Sources - An Introduction

What is a Primary Source? (vs. a secondary source) | What Types of Primary Sources Are Out There? | What Can a Primary Source Tell Us? | How to Begin Evaluating, Analyzing and Interpreting Primary Sources | Context, Point of View, Bias, Reliability, Questions Where Can I Find Primary Sources?


What is a Primary Source?

Primary Source
The most basic definition of a "primary source" is: material (documents or objects) produced by eyewitnesses to or participants in the event or period under investigation. Often, but not always, they are produced at the time of the event or period being studied.

Secondary Source
Secondary sources (the other type of sources historians use in their research and writing) are written some time after an event or historical period and are based on the interpretation of primary sources.

* Note: sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between a primary and secondary source, and sometimes sources can be fit into either category -- newspaper articles or textbooks from decades past are great examples of this. Depending on what your research topic is, or when the research is taking place, each could be used as either a secondary or primary source.


What Types of Primary Sources are out There?

There are many types of primary sources (many more than can be listed here). However, here are some common types with specific examples listed after each. Please note that some sources may fit into more than one category.

  • Personal Accounts/ Personal writings
    diaries, letters, memoirs and autobiographies (published and unpublished), oral history
  • Newspapers and Magazines
    local newspapers, newspapers of ethnic or immigrant communities, mass market magazines, trade journals
  • Government Documents (at local, county, state and national levels)
    census records, probate records, prison records, immigration and naturalization
    records, court proceedings, wills, land deeds
  • Material Culture/ Artifacts
    clothing, architecture, furniture, board games, tools, packaging, cars&the list here is
    enormous.
  • Visual Culture
    paintings, sculpture, photographs, advertisements, cartoons (political and otherwise), maps, posters, films
  • Oral/Aural Traditions
    oral histories, folk tales, folk songs, recorded music
  • Works of Literature
  • Organization Records
    the papers and records of businesses, non-profit organizations, places of worship. May include account books, internal memos, company/organization histories


What Can a Primary Source Tell Us?

Every primary source tells us about life in the past but&different primary sources can tell us different things.

First, two or more of the same type of source if created by different people, at different times, and/or for different reasons, often offer diverse perspectives on a topic.

Second, different types of sources reveal different amounts and types of information about a topic or event. For example, the voting records of a precinct will reveal the number of people who cast a vote in a particular election as well as the number and percentage who cast a votes for candidate "A" vs. candidate "B" (statistical or aggregate data), while a letter written by a voter to her friend discussing why she voted for candidate "A" may help us understand the reasons behind the precinct data (perhaps offer one explanation for a particular final outcome).

Finally, a single source can yield information about more than one topic depending on the question(s) an historian asks of it.

For these reasons, historians often look at a variety of sources and ask a variety of questions to answer their research queries.

REMEMBER: No single primary source can tell an historian everything about an event, trend or period. No source offers the objective "truth" about an event, trend or period.


How to Begin Evaluating, Analyzing and Interpreting a Source:

The basis of all source analysis and interpretation lies in being able to approach a source critically. If you do this you will be able to assess the usefulness of the source for your purposes, and work toward understanding what it can/does tell us about a particular event, idea, topic or period. You will also be able to confidently assess its limitations and determine where and about what it is silent.

In practice, in order to determine whether (and/or how) a source should be (or could be) used to illuminate a certain aspect of, or event in the past, historians need to 1) understand the historical context of the source's creation or use; 2) understand the point of view or perspective of the source's creator; 3) be aware of the source's bias(es) and limitations 4) determine whether or not the source is reliable 5) be able to ask research-project-appropriate questions of a given source.

1. CONTEXT of CREATION or USE:
Critical to understanding the source is to remember that every source is created within a specific cultural context, by a particular person or group, for a particular purpose and audience. Thus, all historians need a working knowledge of the historical context of a source to adequately move forward with source analysis and, ultimately, to determine the usefulness or value of a source for a particular project. Understanding historical context helps historians identify and assess point of view, bias and reliability. Historians often begin assessing a primary source with some knowledge of its historical context and then continue researching that context as needed.

2. POINT of VIEW/PERSPECTIVE
Every primary source is a human creation. Because every primary source is constructed/created by a particular person or group, every primary source reflects that person or group's point of view or perspective on the topic, issue or event described or depicted. This point of view can be literal (e.g. the creator is reporting on a battle that he viewed from a hill a quarter mile away) or ideological or political (e.g. an editorial in a southern newspaper depicts the Freedom Riders as "troublemakers"). These factors inherently (and at times explicitly) shape such things as the design or form of the source, the information the source contains and/or reveals, and the people or issues or points of view that it leaves out. All sources reveal their point of view. Sometimes the creator's point of view is obvious from a mere glance at the source. In other cases point of view is hard to discern, and requires that the historian dig a bit deeper into the creator's past, the context of creation or use, and/or the source's conventions.

3. BIAS/ LIMITATIONS:
Point of view and source type shape and create a source's bias(es) and thus, limit what the source can and does tell us about the past.

Historians understand that all sources are biased and, therefore, limited. That is, they understand that because all sources embody the point of view of their creator, and because every source is created for a particular purpose and audience and within a specific cultural context, no source tells us everything about a topic or event. Rather, every source tells us about one viewpoint or element of a moment/event in the past. Every source highlights certain aspects of or explanations for an event, downplays others, and offers a specific interpretation of the past rather than a mirror image or "objective" rendering of it.

When considering different types of sources (say a painting vs. a letter) the conventions of the source type itself can either reveal or hide certain versions or pieces of the past. While it might be easy to identify the bias (and thus limitations) present in a political cartoon, it is often more difficult to determine the bias in a source such as a photograph, a diary entry, or a piece of furniture. However, with practice and an understanding of the conventions of various types of sources, this becomes easier.

REMEMBER: BIAS IS NOT A NEGATIVE FOR THE HISTORIAN. IN FACT, IT IS ESSENTIAL. BIAS IS WHAT MAKES PRIMARY SOURCES RICH WITH MEANING and ALLOWS HISTORIANS TO USE THEM AS EVIDENCE. Historians do not adopt a sources bias. Nor do they reject it. Rather, historians identify bias(es) and, as a result, are able to determine what story or part of a story a given source can be used to tell. Identifying bias(es) is what allows historians to use a source as evidence of one viewpoint at a moment in time and/or as one piece in the puzzle of the past. In turn, historians are able to determine what other sources might need to be consulted to create a more complete picture of the event, issue or period under investigation.

4. RELIABILITY
More problematic to the historian are sources that are unreliable, that is, sources that contain internal contradictions, are of questionable origin, may have been produced at a considerable time or distance from the event or period under investigation or are otherwise compromised. In general, an account of an event created by an eyewitness immediately following the event will be more reliable than one created by an eyewitness two weeks later, or by someone who heard about the event third hand. However, as you can imagine, there are cases when a source created at or near an event is unreliable because (for example) its creator created it under duress, was not actually present at events he or she is recording.

1-4a. HISTORIAN as SKEPTIC

Because of the need to assess point of view, reliability and bias in all sources (in order to determine whether a source will be useful for a given project) historians must be critical and skeptical (in a good way) of every source they examine. Historians probe each source deeply, looking for clues that might identify a particular point of view, suggest a bias or raise questions about reliability. By doing this, historians are able to better understand not only what a source can tell them but also what its limitations are and what other sources should be consulted in order to get a more complete picture of the issue at hand.

Here are some questions historians ask of all their sources in order to whether and how the source will be useful for a given project.

  • Context of Creation: When was the source produced? In response to what? How close in time and place to the event was a source created? Was the source produced freely or under duress?
  • Identity of Creator/Author: Who is the author? What do we know about him or her? How does the author's identity shape the source? Was the author/creator an eyewitness? Is he/she recording his/her own experience or that of someone else?
  • Motivation: Why was the source produced? Was the author/creator trying to prove a particular point? Who funded the creation of the source?
  • Audience: Who is the author's intended audience? How does his or her knowledge of that audience affect the source? How might the intended audience have read or understood this source?
  • Consistency/Corroboration: Are there any internal contradictions in the source? Is this source different in some way from other sources created by the same individual or group? Does this source refute or confirm other primary sources from the time?
  • Type of Source/ Source Conventions: What are the conventions of this source? Does this example seem to fit into standard forms or is it different in some way? What limitations or silences are innate in this type of source?

5. YOUR QUESTIONS and WHAT A SOURCE CAN "TELL" YOU

A single source can often speak to multiple historical issues/topics. That is, every source can be used to tell more than one story. For example, a children's toy from the 1890s can tell historians about design technology, distribution practices, ideas about childhood, leisure time activities, the rise of mass production&etc.

As a result, what you are able to find out about the past from a given source often depends upon what questions you pose to it and/or from what angle you approach it. Questions need to be geared so as to highlight those elements or aspects of the source that will yield information about the topic you are investigating. Much historical knowledge has been created by asking new questions of previously analyzed sources!



Where Can I Find Primary Sources?

Primary sources are everywhere. They can be as close by as your basement and as far away (or hard to access) as specialized collections in museums in another country. However, there are many places that serve as repositories for primary sources. Below are some of the most common with a list of the types of sources you might find there. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Many surprises await you once you begin looking for primary sources!

  • Textbooks/Document readers/ Published Sources

  • Local Libraries
    Historical novels
    Maps
    Clippings files
    Local histories (you could consider a history written in the past as a primary source)
    Special collections related to the area
    Local newspaper collections

  • College/ University Libraries
    The same as local libraries, except with a broader reach. Most university libraries have national newspaper collections and often a wider collection of historic journals, popular magazines, and historic maps/ atlases
    Special collections

  • Private Museums/ Museum Collections & Libraries
    Artifacts related to the museum's mission
    Manuscript sources related to the museum's mission
    Visual culture related to the museum's mission

  • Your Neighborhood/ House
    Individuals who participated in an historic event
    Historic homes
    Historic markers/monuments
    Family photographs
    Material culture

  • State/ Local Historical Societies and/or Archives
    Records of the state government
    Manuscript sources related to state or local individuals, organizations, businesses and topics.
    Visual culture related to state or local topics
    Material culture/artifacts with state or local connections
    Records of births, deaths and marriages
    Criminal records

  • Private Organizations (some give their material to museums or historical societies, but others, like those listed below, may have kept their own institutional or organizational records and may even have an archive devoted to the same)
    Churches (baptism and marriage records can often be found here)
    Corporations
    Ethnic organizations
    Settlement Houses
    Fraternal organizations
    Charities

  • Major National Historical or Cultural Agencies/Institutions
    These include the Smithsonian, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, the Gilder Lehrman Institute, and the Library of Congress.

  • Internet/ Digital Collections
    More and more, archives and museums (especially major institutions like those listed above) are making their collections available on line. Many however, have only a very small percentage of their collections on line at this time, and, obviously, the materials are only available in two- dimensional or printed form. Please click here to view SALEM in History's high quality digital collections of primary sources.


SALEM in History
eado- last updated 11/02/04