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Recognizing Primary Sources

Primary sources

These are simply a first-hand accounts or original records of an event. Primary sources may include newspaper articles, diaries, letters, interviews, maps, government documents, oral histories, videos, illustrations, photographs, and more. A primary source may also be the result(s) of original research, including quantitative or qualitative data.

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Secondary sources

These are resources that were created "after the fact" by persons who were not present at the actual event--they are simply reporting on information they have received "second hand". Secondary sources usually offer an analysis or interpretation of primary source materials. For example, most scholarly textbooks, reference sources like encyclopedias, and even scholarly articles would be considered secondary sources.


The Confusion

Whether or not a resource is a primary or a secondary source may also depend on what your topic is and how you are using that resource. For example,a newspaper article written in 1941 about the 2nd World War would be a primary source, but a newspaper article written in 2008 about WWII would be a secondary source. Books that are secondary sources may also contain primary sources within them; for example, excerpts from interviews, copies of government treaties or legislation, or research results. Try to find the original source (looking in the book's footnotes and/or bibliography will help!) and you can use them as primary sources for your own research topic.
Below are some links to help you find primary sources, but you may also want to check out the Reference and User Services Association's Guide to Primary Sources on the web.


Online Sources of Primary Content

  • American Memory Project
    Browse or search for primary sources. Collections include: Advertising, African American history, Architecture, Cities/Towns, Environment & Conservation, Immigration & American Expansion, Native American History, Presidents, Religion, Sports & Recreation, Technology & Industry, War & Military, & Women's History.
  • American Presidency Project [?]
    Contains over 86,000 documents related to the study of the Presidency, data for all U.S. Presidential elections, major speeches from public appearances, audio/video media, and more.
  • The Audiovisual Library of International Law
    Arranged in three sections: Historic Archives, Lecture Series, and Research Library--The Historic Archives offers documents, photographs, and audiovisual materials "relating to the negotiation and adoption of significant legal instruments under the auspices of the United Nations and related agencies since 1945." Each section includes an introduction, an overview, and significant provisions of the instrument. Lecture Series contains streaming lectures by some of the world's leading scholars and practitioners on a wide range of international law topics--from the legal status of the Arctic region to state sovereignty in a globalized world. Additional topics and lectures are added periodically.Site visitors will find the Research Library especially useful because it includes well-organized links to collections of treatises, international tribunals, primary and secondary documents, international law journals, and much more.
  • Avalon Project
    Search chronologically for documents in law, history, & diplomacy. Collection begins at 4000 BCE & continues through the present.
  • Behind the Veil: Documenting African American Life in the Jim Crow South
    Duke University's online oral history collection includes 100 digitized interviews, searchable by state, gender, interviewee, etc.
  • C-SPAN Video Archive
    The C-SPAN Archives records, indexes, and archives all C-SPAN programming for historical, educational, research, and archival uses. Every C-SPAN program aired since 1987, now totaling over 160,000 hours, is contained in the C-SPAN Archives.
  • Civil Rights in Mississippi Digital Archive
    Fully searchable database of digitized versions of rare and unique library and archival resources on race relations in Mississippi.Includes oral histories, manuscripts, photographs, and links to additional resources.
  • Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project
    According to their website: "The Densho Digital Archive holds nearly 400 visual histories (800 hours of recorded video interviews) and over 10,000 historic photos, documents, and newspapers. The archive is growing as Densho continues to record life histories and collect images and records. These primary sources document the Japanese American experience from immigration in the early 1900s through redress in the 1980s with a strong focus on the World War II mass incarceration." You have limited access to the Archive via a Guest login, but can also register for an account.
  • Duke Collection of American Indian Oral History
    Provides access to typescripts of interviews (1967 -1972) conducted with hundreds of Indians in Oklahoma regarding the histories and cultures of their respective nations and tribes. Related are accounts of Indian ceremonies, customs, social conditions, philosophies, and standards of living. Can browse or search by tribe or topic.
  • Making of America
    Digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. The collection is particularly strong in the subject areas of education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology. Contains approximately 10,000 books and 50,000 journal articles with 19th century imprints.
  • Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
    Searchable database of over 60,000 documents, includes primary documents, curriculum modules, & visual aids. You can also browse by era, including the Founding Era, Westward Expansion, Great Depression, etc.
  • King Center, Archive of Martin Luther King, Jr.
    The King Center provides a browsable & searchable digital archive of over 200,000 documents, including speeches, notes, letters, etc.
  • National Archives & Records Administration [?]
    The NARA is the national record-keeper of all documents & materials produced by the U.S. Federal government. Search for resources or browse for materials by time span, war & international relations, government spending, & more. Can also browse a wide variety of subjects.
  • National Archives Experience: Digital Vaults
    Website includes searchable database of 1200 documents, phtographs, drawings, maps, etc. from all periods of U.S. history up until 2004. You can even "collect" images and then click on "create" to make posters or a movie out of the images you selected.
  • Ohio Memory Project
    Contains a large selection of manuscripts, images, oral histories, etc. from Ohio history & is browsable by Subject or Place.
  • Old Maps Online
    Old Maps Online allows the user to search for online digital historical maps across numerous different collections via a geographical search. Search by typing a place-name or by clicking in the map window, and narrow by date. The search results provide a direct link to the map image on the website of the host institution.
  • Presidential Libraries
    Provides information about the Presidential Libraries & includes links to the online sites for: Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, William J. Clinton, & George W. Bush. Most Presidential Library sites include primary sources from that presidency.
  • Smithsonian's Digital Archives of American Art
    Search by keyword or browse by artist to locate digital photographs, oral histories, & sketchbooks from America's history.
  • StoryCorps Oral Histories Project
    Online collection of contemporary oral histories, browsable by topics that include identity, struggle, Hurrican Katrina, & more.
  • Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade
    Holds information on almost 35,000 slaving voyages, images, maps, and even includes a searchable database of over 67,000 Africans aboard slave ships (using name, gender, origin, & location of embarkation).
  • World Wide Virtual Library
    Searchable catalog of world history, browsable by continent, era, topic, & methods. Includes both primary & secondary sources.
  • Adviews: Vintage Television Commercials
    Duke's Digital Archive of vintage television commercials from the 1950's through the 1980's
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