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IS 201: The California Gold Rush (Lindell)

What is a Primary Source?

A primary source is a first-hand account of an event or topic. Primary sources come from people who had a direct connection with the event or topic and they can communicate their immediate knowledge of it. These sources offer original thought. They are not modified by any interpretation. The format does not matter. These sources may be transformed from their original format, but the content remains primary. For instance, a letter handwritten by someone who had a first-hand account of the Gold Rush could be digitized so we can read it online and it can be preserved. The content of that letter is still a primary source.

Other types of sources include secondary sources and tertiary sources. Secondary sources interpret and discuss primary sources. For example, a history book where an author who was born in 1980 discusses the Gold Rush and references many primary sources. This author was not alive during the Gold Rush and they do not have a first-hand understanding. They are interpreting and discussing the primary sources created by others.

Tertiary sources are the next level. They are works that collect many sources together into one place and provide a summary. An encyclopedia would be tertiary, since it pulls together information from many different primary and secondary sources to provide an overview of everything on the topic.


Examples of Primary Sources

  • letters
  • diaries
  • minutes
  • photographs
  • artifacts
  • interviews
  • sound and video recordings
  • oral histories
  • newspaper articles
  • journal articles
  • original research studies
  • datasets, statistics, survey data
  • memoirs
  • autobiographies
  • speeches
  • texts of laws

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