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Primary Sources

This guide will provide more information about finding primary sources appropriate for your discipline and area of research.

What are primary sources?

Primary sources provide direct testimony or evidence about a particular subject or topic. Primary sources are original documents created by witnesses or observers who experienced the events or conditions being documented, and are typically created contemporaneously to the event. The important thing to note about primary sources is that they are characterized by their content, rather than format. Careful attention should be paid to the purpose and authority of the source.

Examples can include:

  • Original documents: diaries, manuscripts, letters/correspondence, speeches, interviews, autobiographies, meeting notes, brochures
  • Books, magazines, newspaper articles, periodicals
  • Literature: novels, short stories, poems, screenplays
  • Archives
  • Government documents: reports, treaties, laws, constitutions
  • Maps
  • Case law
  • Census and polling data
  • Statistics
  • Artifacts
  • Media: TV, radio, sound recordings
  • Visual materials: prints, photographs, posters, art
  • Architectural plans and schematics
  • Medical or scientific journal articles
  • Dissertations


Questions to consider when evaluating a primary source

  • Who created this? Were they a part of the event or occurrence that I am researching?
  • When did they create this?
  • What does this source contain? Does it contain evidence or information that will support my argument or research?
  • What kind of bias does this source have? How can this be evaluated in my argument or research?


Getting started

Searching for primary sources can often be a time-consuming task, but there are a few things you can do to make your research process more efficient.

  • Tertiary sources such as encyclopedias, textbooks and book reviews will often help you narrow your topic focus, and will give excellent background information, even if it cannot be used in a scholarly paper.
  • Secondary sources such as books and journal articles will help you construct your argument or foundation for research. Where there is a gap, look for primary sources to support arguments and to build on these secondary sources. You will often find secondary sources interpret primary sources, or use them to support their own arguments. Use these to narrow your focus even further and to find a primary source that is suitable for your own research.

Using this guide

This guide will provide you with general resources that can be used on an interdisciplinary basis. In addition, there are subject-specific pages to help you narrow your focus.

This guide was created in 2018 by Ellen Forsyth.

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