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History Research Guide

What is a Primary Source?

Primary sources of information are those that provide first-hand accounts of the events, practices, or conditions you are researching. In general, these are documents that were created by the witnesses or first recorders of these events at about the time they occurred.

In journalism, a primary source can be a person with direct knowledge of a situation, or a document created by such a person. In History, primary sources are usually letters, records or other documents created during the period that is being studied, such as diaries, legal notices or accounts. However, primary sources can include photographs, jewelry and other items.

Primary sources also include first-hand accounts that were documented later, such as autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories. However, the most useful primary sources are usually considered to be those that were created closest to the time period you’re researching. 

Examples

Primary Source Secondary Source
Text of the Gettysburg Address A modern study of the Gettysburg Address
A scientific study done by a researcher Analysis of that study by another researcher
An interview with a person who  witnessed  President
Kennedy's assassination that appeared in the local
paper the next day
Book about President Kennedy's Assassination written by
somebody who wasn't there
Interviews with people in the streets on the day of the
Pearl Harbor Attacks
Am analysis on how The attack on Pearl Harbor affected the
citizens of the continental U.S.written 20 years later
Text of the trial of St. Joan of Arc Commentary on the trial of St. Joan of Arc