What makes a source primary?

In theory, primary sources are original documents and objects which were created at the time being studied. Typical answers included letters, diaries, photos, newspaper articles, eyewitness accounts, autobiographies, government reports, paintings, maps, etc. In actuality, it can be more complicated and can depend on format and the topic, time period and discipline.

Useful tips

Browse footnotes and bibliographies of books, encyclopedias, and articles for information about primary sources. Sometimes books will divide the bibliography into two sections: primary sources and secondary sources.

Primary Sources in Print

Strategies for locating published primary sources

  1. Browse footnotes and bibliographies of secondary source books, encyclopedias, and articles for the titles of published primary sources.
  2. Search the Library Catalog. Use the advanced search term with subject terms such as:
    • sources
    • diaries
    • personal narratives
    • interviews
    • letters
  3. Search for a topic in the Library Catalog then limit by publication year using the option to the left of the search results. Image: Cornell University Library catalog's date filter

Beware that the date of publication of a book is not always an indication of whether something is a primary source. A modern, critical edition of a published source will have a recent date of publication.

Memoirs as Primary Sources

Primary Source Readers