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Find Primary Sources for Historical Research: What is a Primary Source

A guide to finding primary source materials.

Use bibliographies to help identify primary sources

Reference sources may contain citations to repositories of papers or other primary material. 

Bibliographies in scholarly books often arrange sources consulted by type. The language may vary but the arrangement is clear - primary and secondary, published and unpublished, manuscripts, letters, papers, archives, etc.

Footnotes in books and journal articles may refer to contemporary publications or other primary materials.

Poor Richard's Almanack, 1777

What is a Primary Source

What is a Primary Resource?

Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence created by participants and/or observers of a historical event or time period enabling researchers to get as close to the truth of what actually happened. Often, these materials are created at the time when the events or conditions occured. However, primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs and oral histories that are written or recorded later. 

Primary sources are characterized by their content not their format.  Therefore, primary sources can be found in published books, on microfilm/microfiche, in digital form or in their original format.

The following types of materials are generally considered primary resources:

  • Diaries or journals
  • Letters or other manuscripts
  • Speeches and interviews
  • Photographs
  • Sound recordings
  • Video or motion picture recordings
  • Memoirs and autobiographies. 
  • Published materials (books, magazine and/or newspaper articles)
  • Government documents
  • Objects and artifacts

Your Librarian

Ann Kenne
Contact:
Head of Special Collections /
University Archvist
LL09 O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library
2115 Summit Avenue #4068
Saint Paul, MN 55105-1086
651-962-5461 (office)
amkenne1@stthomas.edu