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Using Primary Sources

Page history last edited by Shaun Hayes 10 years, 1 month ago

Home > Student/Teacher Section > Using Primary Sources


What Are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are unique materials that are created at the time of a historical event that can serve as proof of historical facts. Primary sources are unfiltered materials; the information is not interpreted by someone who was not a witness to the event. Primary sources provide a window into the past.

Watch this short this short video about primary sources


Examples of Primary Sources

  • Often primary sources are unique, one-of-a-kind, and available only in one location, such as an archives or a manuscripts library.
    • "Papers" is the term generally used for collections created by individuals or families as they lived their lives. These collections may contain things like letters, diaries, speechesphotographs, and all sorts of ephemera (such as posters and flyers), to name just a few of the types of documents you might find.
    • "Records" is quite often used to describe the collections created by government agencies, businesses, and organizations. These collections may contain some of the same types of materials as personal papers, like correspondence and speeches, but they can also contain constitutions and by-laws, financial records, membership records, legal documents, and subject files.
    • Don't be confused if the archives you go to doesn't use these terms this way, and you find that the organization you are interested in has "Papers" instead of "Records"! 
  • Some sources can be created at a later date but are still a primary source because they were created by persons intimately involved in the events. Examples include:
    • Interviews, including audio, video, and even written notes or typed transcripts.
    • Reminiscences written later in life.
  • Copies of primary sources can be available at many different locations because they have been digitized, microfilmed, or published. Examples include:
    • Digital copies of any of the types of primary sources listed above
    • Newspapers often have been microfilmed or digitized
    • Microfilm “editions” of archival collections
    • Publications can contain primary sources, like quotations from archival sources used in books or articles



Some Key Teacher Resources on Using Primary Sources

These are examples of a few websites that explain how to teach students to work with primary sources. They suggest methods, activities, and examples.


Library of Congress “Teachers” - “Primary Sources” http://www.loc.gov/teachers/usingprimarysources/
Wisconsin Historical Society “Turning Points” - “Using Primary Sources”
Smithsonian Institute “History Explorer” - “Engaging Students with Primary Sources”

Carollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District, “What are Primary Sources”


Society of American Archivists Reference, Access and Outreach Section's National History Day Committee| Credits

The Society of American Archivists does not assume responsibility for the opinions and views published on this auxiliary site.


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