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,
  • archival manuscripts,
  • newspaper articles,
  • patents,
  • physical artifacts,
  • works of art,
  • or even social media posts…among other information types!

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.

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 An unpublished document.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

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

Primary Source Databases

Browse primary source databases provided by Washington and Lee University Library.

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