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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 social sciences, it might be survey data.
  • 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.

A definition from Cornell University: "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or historical documents (e.g. letters, pamphlets, political tracts, manifestoes)."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 Plagiarism. Cornell University. College of Arts and Sciences.]

A definition from Yale University: "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.]

A Photograph Can be a Primary Source





Antietam, Md. President Lincoln with Gen. George B. McClellan
and group of officers.
[October 3, 1862]
Gardner, Alexander, 1821-1882, photographer.
Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division
[reproduction number LC-B8171-7951]
About this photograph

Online Collections of Primary Sources: Examples