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actual data or research results (e.g. a scientific article presenting original findings; statistics); or historical documents (e.g. letters, pamphlets, political tracts, manifestoes)."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:

"What are primary sources? Primary sources provide firsthand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic or question under investigation.

They are usually created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later."
[Primary Sources at Yale. Yale University.]
Also on this site: Primary Sources come in all shapes and sizes.

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

Online Collections of Primary Sources: Examples

Permissions Information

If you wish to use or adapt any or all of the content of this Guide go to Cornell Library's Research Guides Use Conditions to review our use permissions and our Creative Commons license.