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History Courses & Research: Primary

Where to Find Primary Sources

You've already seen on the Reference and Books tabs that encyclopedias and books often reprint excerpts or full primary source documents--see those pages for more information.

The web has revolutionized access to primary source material. This link is just one place to start searching!

To do searching on your own, search your topic with the phrase "primary sources" and especially look for museums, archives, or educational institutions in the results.

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Defining Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

PRIMARY: First hand testimony or direct evidence.

  • Diaries
  • Interviews/surveys
  • Letters and correspondence
  • Photographs
  • Speeches
  • Autobiographies
  • Eyewitness accounts
  • Personal Narratives
  • Journal articles that report on original research (usually in the sciences)
  • & etc

A primary source is information that has not been interpreted, condensed, evaluated, or commented on.

SECONDARY: When an author interprets primary evidence in some way.

  • Biographies
  • Nonfiction monographs
  • Magazine and newspaper articles
  • Journal articles usually in the humanities (such as literary criticism)
  • Book reviews
  • & etc

A secondary source from one era can become a primary source to another era--if you wanted to know how 19th-century scholars wrote Shakespeare biographies, those biographies would function as primary sources for you even though otherwise, they function as secondary sources.


TERTIARY: Summaries or overviews of topics and/or collections of sources.

  • Textbooks (at times, your textbook may be a secondary source)
  • Bibliographies
  • Encyclopedia articles
  • Handbooks
  • Fact books
  • & etc

Although tertiary sources such as scholarly encyclopedias are important in starting your research, they are not traditionally cited in the end academic product (such as research papers).


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