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HIST 008: Introduction to Late European History

What is a Primary Source?

Primary Sources

Primary sources typically consist of eye-witness accounts of an event or topic. The creators of primary sources witnessed or recorded the events they experienced first-hand.

Primary sources can also include sources like autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories, that were created after the events by participants or observers of the events.

Primary documents are often accessible online in electronic formats - for example, a digitized copy of a historical treaty - but still retain their status as primary documents based on the nature of their content not their format.

Depending on the discipline (psychology versus history, for example) a primary source can be different. In history, primary sources often include original documents or other first-hand accounts of an event. By contrast, in literature, a primary source include original works like novels, poems, or dramatic plays.

Example of a Primary Source - Order of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State (1933)
Citation: Reichsgesetzblatt (RBGl) I 1933 p.33 retrieved from

Secondary Sources

Secondary Sources

In contrast to primary sources, secondary sources make use of primary sources to review, analyze, and provide commentary on a topic. Secondary sources are typically created by individuals or groups who were not eye-witnesses to an event, but make use of the work and accounts of others to examine a topic in detail.

Comparison of Primary vs. Secondary Sources with examples
Subject Area Primary Source Secondary Source
History Letters of Thomas Jefferson The Mind of Thomas Jefferson by Peter Onuf
Political Science Yalta Conference Agreement Eight days at Yalta : how Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin shaped the post-war world, by Diana Preston
Art Joan Miró, The Farm Joan MiroĢ : painting and anti-painting 1927-1937, by Anne Umland
Social Sciences Behavioral Study of obedience, by Stanley Milgram Stanley Milgram: understanding obedience and its implications, by Peter Lunt
Literature Ulysses, by James Joyce James Joyce's Ulysses, by Harold Bloom
Statistics United States Census Data America classifies the immigrants: from Ellis Island to the 2020 census, by Joel Perlmann
Important Note on Monographs

Scholars and historians who conduct research and write about a given historical topic produce secondary sources. A book-length treatment of a singular topic is called a monograph, which is a type of secondary source.

A historical monograph is a book written by an author - typically a professional historian focused on a singular topic in history (as opposed to a broad treatment of a historical time period). The scholar conducts original research on the topic, most likely by consulting primary and secondary sources, and publishes the book with the intention of adding to the field of historical study.

Types of Primary Sources

There is a wide range of different types of primary sources. Primary sources are not just limited to printed text. Print is just one of the many different formats possible.

Examples of primary sources
First-hand accounts or original documents Data Creative Works Relics or Artifacts
diaries raw statistical data artwork pottery
speeches collected research data literature clothing and textiles
letters surveys musical score architecture
manuscripts   sculpture furniture
interviews   performance  
news film footage      
official records      
Newspaper Articles

News and newspaper articles are a unique type of source - sometimes they are primary sources and sometimes secondary sources. There are some important things to consider when deciding whether a newspaper article is a primary source or not:

When was it written?

News articles written during the events they describe are more likely to be considered primary sources versus news articles that recount events from the past - separated by a long interval of time.

What type of article is it?

Editorial or Opinion articles offer commentary and perspective on the news, but are not considered to be first-hand accounts of events.