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History Courses & Research: Primary

Primary, Secondary, or Tertiary?

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.

Primary Sources Online

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.

Primary, Secondary, or Tertiary?

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.

Primary Sources in Overview

Primary Sources in Books

Books in our Catalog: Search for books in OneSearch (also see above)--limit to "Books" and then "Available in the Library" if you don't want to see ebooks, either.

Books with Re-Printed Primary Sources: Go to Advanced Search to find books with primary source material like this: 

  • The above will only find books that are MOSTLY reprints of primary sources. To find books that only have a few, try using keywords (not subjects) of correspondence, diaries, interviews, "personal narratives," or sources. Or browse through a book and look for tell-tale images of scanned primary sources.
  • For more primary source information, see the Primary Sources tab.

Further Book Searching Tips: Notice other subject terms on book record pages you can use as keywords or searches yourself:

Primary, Secondary, or Tertiary?

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).

Primary Sources in our Databases

This database is exclusively primary sources.

~NEW~ in Fall 2018

While this will only apply to research from American history during the covered dates, this is still an exciting addition to our offerings! Check it out.