Primary Sources

What are Primary Sources?

A primary source is a piece of information that is generated by a witness, participant, or contemporary of an event, experiment, or time period under study.

Primary sources are characterized by their content, and are not format / “information type” dependent. They can be found in:

  • printed books and ebooks,
  • audio files,
  • video files,
  • original research data,
  • journal articles describing original scientific research,
  • archival manuscripts,
  • newspaper articles,
  • patents,
  • physical artifacts,
  • works of art,
  • or even social media posts…among other information types!
Johannes Vermeer's View on Delft, c. 1661
Art as primary source
DataONE: Data Observation Network for Earth
Data as primary source
English Wedding Dress, c. 1870, Image by Valerie McGlinchey
Artifact as primary source
New York Times' Coverage of the Triangle Fire Trial, 1911
Newspaper article as primary source
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (& more!) posts providing first-hand accounts of events
Social media as primary source
1993 US State of the Union Address
Video as primary source
Effective Stimulus Parameters for Directed Locomotion...
Original research article as primary source
Winston Churchill’
Winston Churchill’s First Address To The Nation As Prime Minister, 05/19/1940
Audio recording as primary source
Islamic Theological Themes: A Primary Source Reader, edited by John Renard
Printed book / ebook as primary source
Patent for the American Electro- Magnetic Telegraph, 1840
Patent as primary source

Purpose of Primary Sources

Primary sources serve many functions. Some of which are:

  • to provide evidence for arguments (as in historical research)
  • to fuel inspiration (as in theatrical costume design)
  • to show what has already been done within a field (as in the sciences)
  • to offer a way to recognize multiple voices (as in historical or sociological research)

Primary Sources VS Secondary Sources

Secondary sources interpret and/or analyze primary sources. Hence, they are further removed from an event / experiment / time period than primary sources. Primary sources are often defined in opposition to secondary sources–but, the relationship between these two categories is fluid.

Identifying whether or not a piece of information serves as a primary source depends upon one’s research question. For example, a book on classical history written in the 20th century could be a primary or secondary source. If a topic of study relates to an event that occurred in antiquity, the book on classical history would be a secondary source. Conversely, if a study relates to perceptions of 20th century historians on the classical era, the book would be a primary source.

Just as with primary sources, secondary sources are not format / “information type” dependent.

Primary and Secondary Sources in the Sciences

While the definition of primary source transcends discipline, the sciences differ from the humanities in their frequent use of original scientific research articles as primary sources.

Scientists use original research articles for many reasons. Some of which are:

  • to identify what has been studied AND what remains to be researched
  • to provide information for the replication of studies/experiments

HINT: When evaluating whether or not an article represents original research, look for some form of the following headings within the text:

  • Materials / Methods
  • Results
  • Discussion

Original research data is also frequently used as a primary source within the sciences.

Review articles serve as common secondary sources within the sciences. Review articles attempt to synthesize previous research within a topic or field. These articles also often note gaps in research and areas meriting further study.

Finding Primary Sources

Many primary sources are housed in archival institutions. These institutions often organize information differently than libraries. The below terminology is often used to describe archival organization:

Archival TerminologyDefinition
Finding Aid“1. A tool that facilitates discovery of information within a collection of records. – 2. A description of records that gives the repository physical and intellectual control over the materials and that assists users to gain access to and understand the materials.”–SAA’s Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology
Manuscript“1. A handwritten document. – 2. An unpublished document. – 3. An author’s draft of a book, article, or other work submitted for publication.”—-SAA’s Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology

Many rare primary sources that were once only accessible in archives have been digitized and are freely available online–thus, breaking down the physical barriers of research.

For more help finding primary resources, contact a research librarian who specializes in your subject.

Selected Primary Source Resources

For an expansive list of primary sources, check out/join Emily Cook’s (Instructional Design Specialist) shared “Primary Source Resources” group in Zotero.

Zotero Library of Primary Source Resources


SourceSubject AreaDescriptionSubscritpion
Accessible Archives CompleteAfricana Studies, History, Women’s and Gender StudiesProvides online access to a selection of American newspapers, journals, and magazines, largely produced during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.YES
Ancestry Library EditionHistoryContains billions of records in census data, vital records, directories, photos, and more from North America, the U.K., Europe, Australia, and more. U.S. collections include hundreds of millions of names from: Federal Decennial censuses; birth, death, and marriage records including the Social Security Death Index; and U.S. border crossing and trans-ocean ship records.YES
ArtStorArt History, HistoryProvides access to art images, includes metadata describing images.YES
Digital Sanborn Maps, VirginiaHistoryThis collection based upon the fire insurance maps of more than 12,000 American towns and cities, created by the Sanborn Map Company, beginning in the 19th century. The University Library’s subscription to Digital Sanborn Maps provides online access to only the Virginia maps.YES
Early English Books Online (EEBO)English, HistoryEarly English Books Online (EEBO) contains digital facsimile page images of virtually every work printed in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and British North America and works in English printed elsewhere from 1473-1700.YES
Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO)Art History, English, History, Music, Philosophy, Religion, TheaterContains more than 180,000 digitized titles and editions published between 1701 and 1800.YES
EDGAR (Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval)BusinessProvides free, searchable access to SEC (Security and Exchange Commission) filings concerning corporate information.NO
EuropeanaALL SUBJECTSEuropeana provides a portal to the collections of Europe’s galleries, archives, museums, and libraries.NO
Gale Artemis Primary SourcesHistoryGale Artemis Primary Sources serves as a portal to the following primary source collections:
British Library Newspapers, 19th Century I;
British Library Newspapers, 19th Century II;
Crime, Punishment, and Popular Culture, 1790-1920;
Slavery & Anti-Slavery 1: Debates – Slavery & Abolition;
Slavery & Anti-Slavery 2: Slave Trade in Atlantic World;
Slavery & Anti-Slavery 3: Institution of Slavery;
Slavery & Anti-Slavery 4: Age of Emancipation.
YES
Google PatentsSciencesAll documents available through Google Patents originate from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the European Patent Office (EPO). Google Patents covers the entire collection of granted patents and patent applications from the USPTO and EPO. US patent applications date back to 1790, EPO patent applications to 1978.NO
HathiTrustALL SUBJECTSProvides “long-term preservation and access services for public domain and in-copyright content from a variety of sources, including Google, the Internet Archive, Microsoft, and in-house partner institution initiatives.”NO
Internet ArchiveALL SUBJECTSProvides archived online access to text, video, audio, software, and images. Also hosts the Wayback Machine–a tool that allows users to look at former iterations of websites or even websites that are no longer hosted.NO
Library of Congress: Digital CollectionsAfricana Studies, Art History, Film, History, Music, Religion, Sciences, Politics, Sociology and Anthropology, Theater, Women’s and Gender StudiesProvides access to Library of Congress’s online collections. Digitized formats include audio recordings, books, videos, legislation, manuscripts, maps, sheet music, periodicals, personal narratives, and more.NO
National ArchivesHistory, PoliticsThe National Archives preserves select Federal records.NO
Newspaper databases subscribed to by the University LibraryHistory, Journalism, Politics, Sociology and AnthropologyWashington and Lee University Library subscribes to many newspaper databases–both historical and current.YES
Oxford African American Studies CenterAfricana Studies, HistoryContains over 7,500 articles from Oxford University Press publications, some of which are not yet available in printed form, as well as primary source materials, maps, images, and more.YES
Oxford Islamic Studies OnlineHistory, ReligionContains primary sources, Qur’ anic materials, and images, in addition to a variety of secondary sources.YES
ProQuest CongressionalHistory, Law, PoliticsDatabase of Congressional publications, some dating back as far as the late 1700’s. Includes the complete texts of most documents.YES
ScopusSciences, Social ScienceProvides access to original research articles. Books, book chapters, review articles, conference papers, and other forms of publications are also represented in Scopus. If looking for original research articles, use the Document Types “Article” or “Article in Press,” not “Article or Review,” when searching. Review the results to ensure you are selecting original research articles.YES
Search EverythingALL SUBJECTSSearches Washington and Lee University Library’s holdings (including books, articles, and rare books housed in Special Collections & Archives). Search Everything allows users to limit results by common primary source formats such as archival material, manuscript, audio recording, etc.YES
Virginia Heritage: Guides to Manuscript and Archival Collections in VirginiaALL SUBJECTSSearches a collection finding aids from historical societies, libraries, museums, & colleges throughout Virginia.NO
Washington and Lee University Collections of Art and History Art History, HistoryProvides physical access to the art and artifacts held by Washington and Lee University.NO
Washington and Lee University Library’s Special Collections & Archives ALL SUBJECTSProvides physical access to the institutional records of Washington and Lee University, manuscript collections, photographs, rare books, and rare newspapers. Also housed in Special Collections and Archives are some works of art and three-dimensional artifacts. To view select digitized items housed in Special Collections and Archives, browse the Digital Archive.NO
WorldCatALL SUBJECTSWorldCat documents the holdings of libraries around the world and allows users to search for content by limiting to common formats for primary sources.NO

Evaluating Primary Sources

Just as with any form of information, primary sources must be analyzed and evaluated. Keep these questions in mind when reviewing primary source information:

  • How does this information confirm or conflict with what you already know about the topic under study?
  • Why was this information created?
  • What do you know about the creator of the information? Is this person/entity/organization considered authoritative in this instance?
  • Did the creator have a position/bias/stance that may influence the information?
  • What cultural/economic/social factors may have influenced the production of this information?
  • What voices are not present/represented in the primary sources you find?

Need More Help?

Emily Cook

cooke@wlu.edu