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What are Primary Sources?

primary source

n. ~ Material that contains firsthand accounts of events and that was created contemporaneous to those events or later recalled by an eyewitness.

Primary sources emphasize the lack of intermediaries between the thing or events being studied and reports of those things or events based on the belief that firsthand accounts are more accurate. Examples of primary sources include letters and diaries; government, church, and business records; oral histories; photographs, motion pictures, and videos; maps and land records; and blueprints. Newspaper articles contemporaneous with the events described are traditionally considered primary sources, although the reporter may have compiled the story from witnesses, rather than being an eyewitness. Artifacts and specimens may also be primary evidence if they are the object of study.

Source: Society of American Archivists - A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology

Search Tips

With a proper search strategy, WorldCat Discovery is an effective tool for locating primary sources. Use it to search for books and other items at Plough Library and over 70,000 libraries worldwide.

1.  Search by the names of people who witnessed or participated in an event:

  • Harrry Truman
  • Leon Trotsky
  • Bartolome De Las Casas
  • Jesse Owens
  • Saint Augustine

2.  Use these Library of Congress subject headings along with your search terms.

  • sources
  • correspondence
  • diaries
  • early works to 1800
  • interviews
  • pamphlets
  • personal narratives
  • sources
  • autobiography
  • memoir
  • oral history

3.  Look for books with the phrase "documentary history" in the title. They often contain primary sources.

4.  Use the Year filter.  Restrict your search by date to items that were written at the time of the historical event.

5.  Search for your topic, then limit the format to "Downloadable Archival Material." Doing this will retrieve items that have been digitized by libraries, museums, and other institutions.

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