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Research Guides

Locating & Accessing Primary Documents: Primary Sources Description

Find and Access primary resources from U.S. Government websites, Bush Library Databases and HamCAT.

Primary Sources Description

Primary Sources

Primary sources are records of what actually happened during a historical event or time period as they are first described, without any interpretation or commentary.  Primary sources also include sets of data, such as census statistics, which have been tabulated, but not interpreted. The following are generally considered examples of primary sources:

  1. Diaries, journals, speeches, interviews, letters, memos, manuscripts and other papers in which individuals describe events in which they were participants or observers.
  2. Memoirs and autobiographies. These are generally less reliable since they are usually written long after events occurred and may be distorted by bias, dimming memory or the revised perspective that may come with hindsight. On the other hand, they are sometimes the only source for certain information.
  3. Records of organizations and agencies of government.  The minutes, reports, correspondence, etc. of an organization or agency serve as an ongoing record of the activity and thinking of that organization or agency.  Many kinds of records (births, deaths, marriages; permits and licenses issued; census data; etc.) document conditions in society.
  4. Published materials (books, magazine and journal articles, newspaper articles) written at the time about a particular event. While these are sometimes accounts by participants, in most cases they are written by journalists or other observers. The important thing is to distinguish between material written at the time of an event as a  report, and material written much later, as historical analysis.
  5. Photographs, audio recordings and moving pictures or video recordings, documenting what happened.
  6. Artifacts of all kinds: physical objects, buildings, furniture, tools, appliances and household items, clothing, toys. 
  7. Research reports in the sciences and social sciences. Especially for recent social history, the best evidence of broad developments in society is often in the form of social science surveys or research studies.  This research is generally reported in book form, government reports or commonly in articles published in scholarly journals.
  8. If you are attempting to find evidence documenting the mentality or psychology of a time, or of a group (evidence of a world view, a set of attitudes, or the popular understanding of an event or condition), the most obvious source is public opinion polls taken at the time.  These are generally very limited in availability and in what they reveal. It also is possible to make use of ideas and images conveyed in the mass media, and even in literature, film, popular fiction, self-help literature, textbooks, etc.

Primary Documents are available in several of the Library’s Articles & Databases, including: American Antiquarian Society (AAS) Historical Periodicals CollectionsChronicling America: Historic American NewspapersMinnesota Digital Library, and more. 

Primary Documents are sources, written or produced at the time of the event, as evidence of how people were thinking or behaving at the time.

Archives and Manuscripts consist of original unpublished, historical and contemporary material.  Archives and manuscripts collections contain rare and unique research materials including documents, photos, videos, and other primary sources. For example, see the Hamline University Archives Digitized Collections.

Primary sources in reproduction For some levels of research it is acceptable and appropriate to use primary sources that have been reproduced and published. A few examples include microfilmed newspaper articles, published diaries, and scanned images of original documents published in book form.  Hamline's microfiche/microfilm are located in the middle of the second floor.  You can locate our holdings in HamCAT.

Q. Is it a primary source if it's on the web?

A. Electronic versions of primary sources are being added to the web at an increasing rate. They may be freely accessible, or available via Libraries with licensed subscription access. If your assignment or research allows for use of original materials in facsimile or reproduction, it's acceptable to use qualified online resources.

"An electronic version of a primary source can be either a scanned image of the original document (a facsimile) or an ASCII text or word processed version, created by re-keying the content of the document or by using optical character recognition (OCR) to convert the image of the document into text. -- from ALA/RUSA.