What is a primary source?

Each academic discipline creates and uses primary and secondary sources differently; the definition of a primary source only makes sense in the context of a specific discipline or field of inquiry.
In the humanities and the arts, a primary document might be an original creative work.
It might be a part of the historical record written about, or in proximity to, an event.
In the sciences, it might be a publication of original research.

Here are two definitions that try to capture the elusive nature of primary documents:

  1. A definition from Cornell: Primary sources are the main text or work that you are discussing (e.g. a sonnet by William Shakespeare; an opera by Mozart); actual data or research results (e.g. a scientific article presenting original findings; statistics); or historical documents (e.g. letters, pamphlets, political tracts, manifestoes). ["What is a Source?" Recognizing and Avoiding Plagarism. Cornell University. College of Arts and Sciences.]
  2. A definition from Yale: "A primary source is firsthand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. The nature and value of a source cannot be determined without reference to the topic and questions it is meant to answer. The same document, or other piece of evidence, may be a primary source in one investigation and secondary in another. The search for primary sources does not, therefore, automatically include or exclude any category of records or documents." [Yale University Library Primary Sources Research Colloquium in History]

Cornell digital images: primary sources

woodcut, Giornata decima (from Boccaccio, Decameron)

Art as a primary source

Information about daily life in history can be deduced from art (painting, tapestry, fresco, and other forms) as this article well demonstrates:

Food, Drink, and Table Manners in the Bayeux Tapestry: A Note from William Sayers, in Petits Propos Culinaires, June 2018, issue 111, p. 18-21.

Digital Boccaccio texts

Decameron Web (Brown University) Boccaccio's work in Italian and in English, along with material related to it.

Internet Medieval Sourcebook (Fordham University)

Both are older digital projects inaugurated in the mid-1990s.