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Primary Sources: What are Primary Sources?

Finding and making use of primary sources

What are primary sources?

Roxcy Bolton with Eleanor Roosevelt, 1956


Primary sources

are original records and items that have survived from the past, as well as original research. Sources are considered primary on the basis of their content; for example, even if you view a digital copy of the The United States Constitution, rather than the original, it is still considered primary.




Roxcy Bolton with Eleanor Roosevelt, 1956 Source: State Library and Archives of Florida


Some examples of primary sources are:

Written documents: books, newspapers, original research, government documents, court decisions and laws, diaries, personal memoirs, autobiographies, letters, email

Visual: photographs, films, paintings,maps, posters

Objects: clothing, tools, inventions

Oral recordings: speeches, interviews, sound recordings, music

Using Primary Sources

19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Women's Right to Vote (1920)

Photograph, "Bastille Day spells prison for sixteen suffragettes who picketed the White House" July 19, 1917. Source: National Archives - Our Documents - 100 Milestone Documents

Primary sources are used for research in many subjects:

  • History - evidence for questions about what happened in the past
  • Science - objective studies as evidence for scientific claims
  • Any topic for which you want to find direct evidence of firsthand information in the form of text, images, recordings, or other formats.

When working with primary sources, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is it?
  2. Who wrote or made it?
  3. When was it written or made?
  4. Where was it written or made?
  5. How was it written or made?
  6. What evidence does this source contribute to my research?

Then ask what the meaning is of this primary source:

  1. Why was this document/object written or made?
  2. Who was the intended audience/user?
  3. What questions does this source raise? What don’t we know about this source?
  4. What other information do we have about this document or object?
  5. What other sources are like this one?
  6. What other sources might help answer our questions about this one?
  7. What else do we need to know to understand the evidence in this source?
  8. What have others said about this or similar sources?
  9. How does this source help me to answer my research question?
  10. How does evidence from this source alter or fit into existing interpretations of the past?