Skip to main content

Primary Sources

What is considered a primary source?

Sheet music

Audio and Music

Music (both sheet music and recordings), oral histories, and sound recordings provide researchers a unique perspective on the past. You can learn about cultural trends, word usage, everyday sounds of a city, spoken word poetry, or hear someone tell their own version of events they personally witnessed. 

Common Disciplines: History, Music, Linguistics, Anthropology, Art, English

Image anticipated (small)

Books and Pamphlets

In most cases, books can be considered a secondary source because the author is using evidence from other sources to support their argument. However, books can be considered a primary source in some disciplines; published memoirs, autobiographical work, a bound collection of documents, or creative writing could all fall under the primary source category. Likewise, pamphlets or small, bound booklets or leaflets on one particular subject, are typically a primary source. 

Common Disciplines: English, History, Material Culture

Graph

Data

Information that is systematically gathered and organized. Data is often created by organizations or groups of people who are trying to collect information on a particular topic. Examples of types of data that is collected are: polling or survey information, experiments, simulations, or observation. 

Common Disciplines: Social Sciences (Political Science, Psychology, etc.), the Sciences (Biology, Chemistry, etc.), History,  Public Policy, Legal Studies

Tweets

Digital Content

Although most researchers think first of primary sources as items that are only from prior to the 20th century or earlier; there are primary sources that are called born-digital material. Born-digital means that the source was created digitally, not converted from another format. Examples are: tweets, emails, social media posts, or gifs. 

Common Disciplines: Sociology, Anthropology, History, English

Image anticipated (small)

Ephemera

Ephemera are primary sources that exist or only were created to exist for a short period of time. Examples of ephemera can be ticket stubs, post cards, stickers, or playing cards. 

Common Disciplines: History, Material Culture, English, Anthropology, Art, Art History

Gov doc

Government Documents

Information on legislative, executive, and judicial actions (in the form of bills, amendments, etc.) that show the actions of all branches of the government - local, state, federal, and international. 

Common Disciplines: History, Political Science/Public Policy, Sociology, Criminal Justice, Education

Law Books

Law

In law, a primary source is the law itself. Primary law comes from one of the 3 branches of government. Legislative branch makes legislation or statutes that are found in Statutory Codes. Administrative branch makes administrative or regulatory law that is found in regulatory codes. Judicial branch makes case law through judicial opinions that can either be published in case reporters or can be "unreported" but still found online.

Common Disciplines: Law, Public Policy

Image anticipated (small)

Manuscripts

The term manuscripts has multiple meanings. It originally referred to handwritten letters, but it can also be used to refer to a collection of papers usually found in an archive or can refer to a single piece of work by an author, like a book. Manuscripts can encompass: business or personal correspondence, diaries, legal and financial documents, and more. 

Common Disciplines: History, English, Journalism

Image anticipated (small)

Maps

Created to show a particular geographic region that represents the thoughts, ideas, cultural understandings, and visual and textual representations of that time period. Maps are a product of someone's personal thoughts, so it can provide insight on cultural mores and thoughts of the time. 

Common Disciplines: History, Political Science, the Sciences, Sociology, Anthropology, Legal Studies

Newspaper

Newspapers

Provide information on the reaction to domestic and international news, popular reactions to events, advertisements, obituaries, and opinions.

Common Disciplines: History, English, Political Science

Bird Stirr Up Jar

Objects and Artifacts

Artifacts are, typically, three-dimensional objects that have once served a specific function or purpose. Artifacts can shed light on how a group of people preformed a specific task or provide insight into their customs and culture. Many things can be considered an artifact; some commonly considered artifacts that can be used for research are: tea pots, uniforms, jewelry, or a computer. 

Common Disciplines:  History, Anthropology

Image anticipated (small)

Reports and Studies

A compiled description about a specified topic or event. Common examples of a report could be: case studies, board reports, business reports, field notes or observations, empirical research, and interviews. 

Common Disciplines: History, English, the Social Sciences, the Sciences, Education, Legal

Men talking to Trabant

Video and Images

Video and images can encompass a large array of primary sources that provide insight into the sights, sounds, and visuals of the past. Examples that could be used as a primary source are: film, video (homemade footage or propaganda ads), commercials, and photography.

Common Disciplines: History, English, Film Studies, Anthropology, Sociology

Painting of Ann Whitely Russell

Visual Material

Visual Material is used to describe a large amount of primary sources across forms; including photography, paintings, drawings, sculpture, architectural plans, prints (woodcuts, engravings, lithographs), graphic arts (cartoons, posters, trade cards, computer-generated images), and film. 

Common Disciplines: History, Art, Art History, Material Culture, English, Film, Anthropology, Communications