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Primary Sources

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 - the Fifteenth Amendment (1870)
The Fifteenth Amendment
Citation: Joint Resolution Proposing the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution; 2/26/1869; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789 - 2011; General Records of the United States Government, Record Group 11; National Archives Building, Washington, DC. [Online Version,, February 23, 2021]

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

Primary Sources - Guide Video Version