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Primary Sources

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are documents or objects that provide direct, first-hand evidence. On the other hand, secondary sources analyze, discuss, and comment upon primary sources. Disciplines define primary sources differently. To the scientist, they might be reports of original research or personal papers; to the journalist, they might be interviews or letters. The researcher’s relation to source is important in terms of proximity and determination of source type. Format, content, use, and interpretation must be considered. Remember, ASK YOUR INSTRUCTOR when in doubt about whether something is a primary source.

You may be surprised at the wealth of primary source materials in Milne Library.  A partial listing is included in this guide, along with tips on how to find primary sources when searching print and online access tools.

Tips for Finding Primary Sources

Primary sources may be available in print, in library databases, on websites, or in microform collections. Print primary sources, or print reproductions of primary sources, are sometimes available in archives and libraries. In addition, primary sources are increasingly found online in digitized form. These may be found in library databases or on websites. Primary sources are also available in microform, a format that has been used for many years to preserve documents, as well as to save storage space. 

Tips for finding primary sources:

  • When searching print and online access tools use search terms such as SOURCES, CORRESPONDENCE, PERSONAL NARRATIVES, DIARIES, RECORDS AND CORRESPONDENCE, SERMONS, SPEECHES, PAPERS, LETTERS.

  • Look for titles of primary sources in secondary sources and in lists included in bibliographies of secondary sources. Use text, class, and library bibliographies for recommended titles or listings of primary sources.

  • Browse library shelves around other relevant books. This is often a wonderful way to discover collections of primary sources that have been published in a book format.

On this guide you will find a partial listing of primary source materials available in Milne Library. This includes a listing of reference books, databases, websites, and microform collections containing primary source materials. Remember, this is only a partial listing. More primary sources can be found through searching print and online access tools and browsing the library shelves in relevant areas.

Primary versus secondary examples