Primary Sources

For World Heritage Encyclopedia's policy on the use of primary sources, see WP:PSTS.

Primary sources are original materials.[1] Information for which the writer has no personal knowledge is not primary, although it may be used by historians in the absence of a primary source. In the study of history as an academic discipline, a primary source (also called original source or evidence) is an artifact, a document, a recording, or other source of information that was created at the time under study. It serves as an original source of information about the topic. Similar definitions are used in library science, and other areas of scholarship, although different fields have somewhat different definitions.[2] In journalism, a primary source can be a person with direct knowledge of a situation, or a document written by such a person.

Primary sources are distinguished from secondary sources, which cite, comment on, or build upon primary sources. Generally, accounts written after the fact with the benefit of hindsight are secondary.[3] A secondary source may also be a primary source depending on how it is used.[4] For instance the same memoir would be considered a primary source in research examining its author or his or her friends characterized within it but a secondary source if it were used to examine the culture in which its author lived.[5] "Primary" and "secondary" should be understood as relative terms, with sources categorized according to specific historical contexts and what is being studied.[6]:118–246[7]

The significance of source classification

History and historiography

In scholarly writing, an important objective of classifying sources is to determine the independence and reliability of sources.[7] In contexts such as historical writing, it is almost always advisable to use primary sources if possible, and that "if none are available, it is only with great caution that [the author] may proceed to make use of secondary sources."[8] Sreedharan believes that primary sources have the most direct connection to the past, and that they "speak for themselves" in ways that cannot be captured through the filter of secondary sources.[9]

Other fields

In scholarly writing, the objective of classifying sources is to determine the independence and reliability of sources.[7] Though the terms primary source and secondary source originated in historiography as a way to trace the history of historical ideas, they have been applied to many other fields. For example, these ideas may be used to trace the history of scientific theories, literary elements, and other information that is passed from one author to another.

In scientific literature, a primary source is the original publication of a scientist's new data, results, and theories. In political history, primary sources are documents such as official reports, speeches, pamphlets, posters, or letters by participants, official election returns, and eyewitness accounts. In the history of ideas or intellectual history, the main primary sources are books, essays and letters written by intellectuals; these intellectuals may include historians, whose books and essays are therefore considered primary sources for the intellectual historian, though they are secondary sources in their own topical fields.

A study of cultural history could include fictional sources such as novels or plays. In a broader sense primary sources also include artifacts like photographs, newsreels, coins, paintings or buildings created at the time. Historians may also take archaeological artifacts and oral reports and interviews into consideration. Written sources may be divided into three main types.[10]

  • Narrative sources or literary sources tell a story or message. They are not limited to fictional sources (which can be sources of information for contemporary attitudes), but include diaries, films, biographies, leading philosophical works, scientific works, and so on.
  • Diplomatic sources include charters and other legal documents which usually follow a set format.
  • Social documents are records created by organizations, such as registers of births, tax records, and so on.

In the study of historiography, when the study of history is itself subject to historical scrutiny, a secondary source becomes a primary source. For a biography of a historian, that historian's publications would be primary sources. Documentary films can be considered a secondary source or primary source, depending on how much the filmmaker modifies the original sources.[11]

The Lafayette College Library, for example, provides the following synopsis of primary sources in several basic areas of study:

"The definition of a primary source varies depending upon the academic discipline and the context in which it is used.
  • In the humanities, a primary source could be defined as something that was created either during the time period being studied or afterward by individuals reflecting on their involvement in the events of that time.
  • In the social sciences, the definition of a primary source would be expanded to include numerical data that has been gathered to analyze relationships between people, events, and their environment.
  • In the natural sciences, a primary source could be defined as a report of original findings or ideas. These sources often appear in the form of research articles with sections on methods and results."[12]

Finding primary sources

Although many documents that are primary sources remain in private hands, the usual location for them is an archive. These can be public or private. Documents relating to one area are usually spread over a large number of different archives. These can be distant from the original source of the document. For example, the Huntington Library in California houses a large number of documents from the United Kingdom.

In the US, digital copies of primary sources can be retrieved from a number of places. The Access to Archival Databases (AAD).

In the UK, the National Archives provides a consolidated search of its own catalogue and a wide variety of other archives listed on the Access to Archives index. Digital copies of various classes of documents at the National Archives (including wills) are available from DocumentsOnline. Most of the available documents relate to England and Wales. Some digital copies of primary sources are available from the National Archives of Scotland. Many County Record Offices collections are included in Access to Archives, while others have their own on-line catalogues. Many County Record Offices will supply digital copies of documents.

Using primary sources

History as an academic discipline is based on primary sources, as evaluated by the community of scholars, who report their findings in books, articles and papers. Arthur Marwick says "Primary sources are absolutely fundamental to history."[13] Ideally, a historian will use all available primary sources created by the people involved, at the time being studied. In practice some sources have been destroyed, while others are not available for research. Perhaps the only eyewitness reports of an event may be memoirs, autobiographies, or oral interviews taken years later. Sometimes the only evidence relating to an event or person in the distant past was written or copied decades or centuries later. Manuscripts that are sources for classical texts can be copies of documents, or fragments of copies of documents. This is a common problem in classical studies, where sometimes only a summary of a book or letter has survived. Potential difficulties with primary sources have the result that history is usually taught in schools using secondary sources.

Historians studying the modern period with the intention of publishing an academic article prefer to go back to available primary sources and to seek new (in other words, forgotten or lost) ones. Primary sources, whether accurate or not, offer new input into historical questions and most modern history revolves around heavy use of archives and special collections for the purpose of finding useful primary sources. A work on history is not likely to be taken seriously as scholarship if it only cites secondary sources, as it does not indicate that original research has been done.[6]

However, primary sources – particularly those from before the 20th century – may have hidden challenges. "Primary sources, in fact, are usually fragmentary, ambiguous and very difficult to analyse and interpret."[13] Obsolete meanings of familiar words and social context are among the traps that await the newcomer to historical studies. For this reason, the interpretation of primary texts is typically taught as part of an advanced college or postgraduate history course, although advanced self-study or informal training is also possible.

The following questions are asked about primary sources:

  • What is the tone?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What is the purpose of the publication?
  • What assumptions does the author make?
  • What are the bases of the author's conclusions?
  • Does the author agree or disagree with other authors of the subject?
  • Does the content agree with what you know or have learned about the issue?
  • Where was the source made? (questions of systemic bias)

Strengths and weaknesses of primary sources

In many fields and contexts, such as historical writing, it is almost always advisable to use primary sources if possible, and that "if none are available, it is only with great caution that [the author] may proceed to make use of secondary sources."[8] In addition, primary sources avoid the problem inherent in secondary sources, where each new author may distort and put their own spin on the findings of prior cited authors.[14] However, a primary source is not necessarily more of an authority or better than a secondary source. There can be bias and other tactic used to twist historical information.

"Original material may be ... prejudiced, or at least not exactly what it claims to be."
—David Iredale[15]
These errors may be corrected in secondary sources, which are often subjected to peer review, can be well documented, and are often written by historians working in institutions where methodological accuracy is important to the future of the author's career and reputation. Historians consider the accuracy and objectiveness of the primary sources they are using and historians subject both primary and secondary sources to a high level of scrutiny. A primary source such as a journal entry (or the online version, a blog), at best, may only reflect one individual's opinion on events, which may or may not be truthful, accurate, or complete.

Participants and eyewitnesses may misunderstand events or distort their reports (deliberately or unconsciously) to enhance their own image or importance. Such effects can increase over time, as people create a narrative that may not be accurate.[16] For any source, primary or secondary, it is important for the researcher to evaluate the amount and direction of bias.[17] As an example, a government report may be an accurate and unbiased description of events, but it can be censored or altered for propaganda or cover-up purposes. The facts can be distorted to present the opposing sides in a negative light. Barristers are taught that evidence in a court case may be truthful, but it may be distorted to support (or oppose) the position of one of the parties.

Classifying sources

Many sources can be considered either primary and secondary, depending on the context in which they are examined.[7] Moreover, the distinction between primary and secondary sources is subjective and contextual,[18] so that precise definitions are difficult to make.[19] Investigative journalism, for example, is a primary source of information.[20]Template:Notinsourcegiven[21]Template:Notinsourcegiven[22]Template:Notinsourcegiven[23][page needed]Template:Notinsourcegiven A book review, when it contains the opinion of the reviewer about the book rather than a summary of the book, becomes a primary source.[24][25]

If a historical text discusses old documents to derive a new historical conclusion, it is considered to be a primary source for the new conclusion. Examples in which a source can be both primary and secondary include an obituary[26] or a survey of several volumes of a journal counting the frequency of articles on a certain topic.[26]

Whether a source is regarded as primary or secondary in a given context may change, depending upon the present state of knowledge within the field.[27] For example, if a document refers to the contents of a previous but undiscovered letter, that document may be considered "primary", since it is the closest known thing to an original source; but if the letter is later found, it may then be considered "secondary"[28]

In some instances, the reason for identifying a text as the "primary source" may devolve from the fact that no copy of the original source material exists, or that it is the oldest extant source for the information cited. Alternatively, when a printed version of a document is made from an electronic version, the electronic version may be termed the primary document.[29][30]


Historians must occasionally contend with forged documents, purporting to be primary sources. These forgeries have usually been constructed with a fraudulent purpose, such as promulgating legal rights, supporting false pedigrees, or promoting particular interpretations of historic events. The investigation of documents to determine their authenticity is diplomatics.

For centuries, Popes used the forged Donation of Constantine to bolster the secular power of the Papacy. Among the earliest forgeries are false Anglo-Saxon Charters, a number of 11th and 12th century forgeries produced by monasteries and abbeys to support a claim to land where the original document had been lost or never existed. One particularly unusual forgery of a primary source was perpetrated by Sir Edward Dering, who placed false monumental brasses in a parish church.[31] In 1986, Hugh Trevor-Roper "authenticated" the Hitler diaries, which were later proved to be forgeries. Recently, forged documents have been placed within the UK National Archives in the hope of establishing a false provenance.[32][33] However, historians dealing with recent centuries rarely encounter forgeries of any importance.[6]:22–25

See also


  • Wood Gray (1991) [1964]. Historian's Handbook: A Key to the Study and Writing of History. 2nd ed. Waveland Press; 1991. ISBN 978-0-88133-626-9.
  • Sebastian Olden-Jørgensen (2005). Til kilderne!: introduktion til historisk kildekritik (in Danish). [To the sources: Introduction to historical source criticism]. København: Gads Forlag. ISBN 978-87-12-03778-1.

External links

Primary sources repositories
  • Primary Sources from World War One and Two Database of mailed letters to and from soldiers during major world conflicts from the Napoleonic Wars to World War Two.
  • Footnote – Over 60,000,000 Primary Source Documents
  • A listing of over 5000 websites describing holdings of manuscripts, archives, rare books, historical photographs, and other primary sources
  • ArchiveGrid
  • Shapell Manuscript Foundation Digitalized Primary Sources and Historical Artifacts from 1786 – present
All sources repositories
  • The Free Library – the project that collects, edits, and catalogs all source texts
essays and descriptions of primary, secondary and other sources
  • University of Maryland Libraries (accessed 16 Jul 2013)
  • University of California, Santa Cruz Library
  • James Cook University Library
  • Joan of Arc: Primary Sources Series – Example of a publication focusing on primary source documents.
  • University of California, Berkeley library
  • Bowling Green State University library
  • Finding primary sources in world history
  • Guide to Terminology used when describing archival and other primary source materials.
  • Links to many online history archival sources.
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