Answered By: Alan Lawless
Last Updated: Mar 01, 2017     Views: 85

What is a Primary Source?

According to Yale University's page on primary sources, a primary source is any first-hand documentation of a historical event.  The term  can be applied to many things, including personal journals, radio recordings, artwork, maps, and even clothing from the time period in question.  (And this list just scratches the surface!)  John and Abigal Adams' letters to one another, for example, are frequently used as primary sources in studies of Colonial America and the American Revolution.  

What is the Difference Between Primary and Secondary Sources?

While primary sources are first hand testimonies, secondary sources are interpretations of these testimonies.  Scholarly publications are frequently used as secondary sources in historical research.  John and Abigail Adams' letters are primary sources; Joseph J. Ellis's First Family, a nonfiction work about the Adams' political and family life based on their letters, is a secondary source.  Think of primary sources as raw data; their significance is not always self-evident, and it is up to researchers to interpret their meaning responsibly.  

Where can Primary Sources be Found?

Traditionally, primary source materials have been housed in specialized libraries, museums, and archives.  Web technology has enabled these instutions to digitize or transcribe their holdings and make them available online. The Rogers State University historical research guides include links to websites of libraries and archives that have digitized their primary source collections.  Even if sources are not available in digital format, many institutions will mail photocopies of materials for a small fee.   You may find primary sources from institutions not listed in the guides that you want to use for your assignments.  If you do, make sure the institution is a known and credible one; original documents should always be available to view in physical form.          

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