Primary source

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This wall painting found in the Roman city of Pompeii is an example of a primary source about people in Pompeii in Roman times. (Portrait of Terentius Neo) Pompeii-couple.jpg
This wall painting found in the Roman city of Pompeii is an example of a primary source about people in Pompeii in Roman times. (Portrait of Terentius Neo)

In the study of history as an academic discipline, a primary source (also called an original source) is an artifact, document, diary, manuscript, autobiography, recording, or any other source of information that was created at the time under study. It serves as an original source of information about the topic. Similar definitions can be used in library science, and other areas of scholarship, although different fields have somewhat different definitions. In journalism, a primary source can be a person with direct knowledge of a situation, or a document written by such a person. [1]


Primary sources are distinguished from secondary sources, which cite, comment on, or build upon primary sources. Generally, accounts written after the fact with the benefit (and possible distortions) of hindsight are secondary. [2] A secondary source may also be a primary source depending on how it is used. [3] For example, a memoir would be considered a primary source in research concerning its author or about their friends characterized within it, but the same memoir would be a secondary source if it were used to examine the culture in which its author lived. "Primary" and "secondary" should be understood as relative terms, with sources categorized according to specific historical contexts and what is being studied. [4] :118–246 [5]

Significance of source classification


From a letter of Philip II, King of Spain, 16th century Donfelipe.jpg
From a letter of Philip II, King of Spain, 16th century

In scholarly writing, an important objective of classifying sources is to determine their independence and reliability. [5] In contexts such as historical writing, it is almost always advisable to use primary sources and that "if none are available, it is only with great caution that [the author] may proceed to make use of secondary sources." [6] Sreedharan believes that primary sources have the most direct connection to the past and that they "speak for themselves" in ways that cannot be captured through the filter of secondary sources. [7]

Other fields

In scholarly writing, the objective of classifying sources is to determine the independence and reliability of sources. [5] Though the terms primary source and secondary source originated in historiography [ citation needed ] as a way to trace the history of historical ideas, they have been applied to many other fields. For example, these ideas may be used to trace the history of scientific theories, literary elements, and other information that is passed from one author to another.

In scientific literature, a primary source is the original publication of a scientist's new data, results, and theories. In political history, primary sources are documents such as official reports, speeches, pamphlets, posters, or letters by participants, official election returns, and eyewitness accounts. In the history of ideas or intellectual history, the main primary sources are books, essays, and letters written by intellectuals; these intellectuals may include historians, whose books and essays are therefore considered primary sources for the intellectual historian, though they are secondary sources in their own topical fields. In religious history, the primary sources are religious texts and descriptions of religious ceremonies and rituals. [8]

A study of cultural history could include fictional sources such as novels or plays. In a broader sense primary sources also include artifacts like photographs, newsreels, coins, paintings or buildings created at the time. Historians may also take archaeological artifacts and oral reports and interviews into consideration. Written sources may be divided into three types. [9]

In historiography, when the study of history is subject to historical scrutiny, a secondary source becomes a primary source. For a biography of a historian, that historian's publications would be primary sources. Documentary films can be considered a secondary source or primary source, depending on how much the filmmaker modifies the original sources. [10]

The Lafayette College Library provides a synopsis of primary sources in several areas of study:

"The definition of a primary source varies depending upon the academic discipline and the context in which it is used.

  • In the humanities, a primary source could be defined as something that was created either during the time period being studied or afterward by individuals reflecting on their involvement in the events of that time.
  • In the social sciences, the definition of a primary source would be expanded to include numerical data that has been gathered to analyze relationships between people, events, and their environment.
  • In the natural sciences, a primary source could be defined as a report of original findings or ideas. These sources often appear in the form of research articles with sections on methods and results." [11]

Finding primary sources

Although many primary sources remain in private hands, others are located in archives, libraries, museums, historical societies, and special collections. These can be public or private. Some are affiliated with universities and colleges, while others are government entities. Materials relating to one area might be located in many different institutions. These can be distant from the original source of the document. For example, the Huntington Library in California houses many documents from the United Kingdom.

In the US, digital copies of primary sources can be retrieved from a number of places. The Library of Congress maintains several digital collections where they can be retrieved. Some examples are American Memory and Chronicling America. The National Archives and Records Administration also has digital collections in Digital Vaults. The Digital Public Library of America searches across the digitized primary source collections of many libraries, archives, and museums. The Internet Archive also has primary source materials in many formats.

In the UK, the National Archives provides a consolidated search of its own catalog and a wide variety of other archives listed on the Access to Archives index. Digital copies of various classes of documents at the National Archives (including wills) are available from DocumentsOnline. Most of the available documents relate to England and Wales. Some digital copies of primary sources are available from the National Archives of Scotland. Many County Record Offices collections are included in Access to Archives, while others have their own online catalogs. Many County Record Offices will supply digital copies of documents.

In other regions, Europeana has digitized materials from across Europe while the World Digital Library and Flickr Commons have items from all over the world. Trove has primary sources from Australia.

Most primary source materials are not digitized and may only be represented online with a record or finding aid. Both digitized and not digitized materials can be found through catalogs such as WorldCat, the Library of Congress catalog, the National Archives catalog, and so on.

Using primary sources

History as an academic discipline is based on primary sources, as evaluated by the community of scholars, who report their findings in books, articles, and papers. Arthur Marwick says "Primary sources are absolutely fundamental to history." [12] Ideally, a historian will use all available primary sources that were created by the people involved at the time being studied. In practice, some sources have been destroyed, while others are not available for research. Perhaps the only eyewitness reports of an event may be memoirs, autobiographies, or oral interviews that were taken years later. Sometimes the only evidence relating to an event or person in the distant past was written or copied decades or centuries later. Manuscripts that are sources for classical texts can be copies of documents or fragments of copies of documents. This is a common problem in classical studies, where sometimes only a summary of a book or letter has survived. Potential difficulties with primary sources have the result that history is usually taught in schools using secondary sources.

Historians studying the modern period with the intention of publishing an academic article prefer to go back to available primary sources and to seek new (in other words, forgotten or lost) ones. Primary sources, whether accurate or not, offer new input into historical questions and most modern history revolves around heavy use of archives and special collections for the purpose of finding useful primary sources. A work on history is not likely to be taken seriously as a scholarship if it only cites secondary sources, as it does not indicate that original research has been done. [4]

However, primary sources – particularly those from before the 20th century – may have hidden challenges. "Primary sources, in fact, are usually fragmentary, ambiguous, and very difficult to analyze and interpret." [12] Obsolete meanings of familiar words and social context are among the traps that await the newcomer to historical studies. For this reason, the interpretation of primary texts is typically taught as part of an advanced college or postgraduate history course, although advanced self-study or informal training is also possible.

Strengths and weaknesses

In many fields and contexts, such as historical writing, it is almost always advisable to use primary sources if possible, and "if none are available, it is only with great caution that [the author] may proceed to make use of secondary sources." [6] In addition, primary sources avoid the problem inherent in secondary sources in which each new author may distort and put a new spin on the findings of prior cited authors. [13]

"A history, whose author draws conclusions from other than primary sources or secondary sources actually based on primary sources, is by definition fiction and not history at all."

Kameron Searle

However, a primary source is not necessarily more of an authority or better than a secondary source. There can be bias and tacit unconscious views that twist historical information.

"Original material may be... prejudiced, or at least not exactly what it claims to be."

David Iredale [14]

The errors may be corrected in secondary sources, which are often subjected to peer review, can be well documented, and are often written by historians working in institutions where methodological accuracy is important to the future of the author's career and reputation. Historians consider the accuracy and objectiveness of the primary sources that they are using and historians subject both primary and secondary sources to a high level of scrutiny. A primary source such as a journal entry (or the online version, a blog), at best, may only reflect one individual's opinion on events, which may or may not be truthful, accurate, or complete.

Participants and eyewitnesses may misunderstand events or distort their reports, deliberately or not, to enhance their own image or importance. Such effects can increase over time, as people create a narrative that may not be accurate. [15] For any source, primary or secondary, it is important for the researcher to evaluate the amount and direction of bias. [16] As an example, a government report may be an accurate and unbiased description of events, but it may be censored or altered for propaganda or cover-up purposes. The facts can be distorted to present the opposing sides in a negative light. Barristers are taught that evidence in a court case may be truthful but may still be distorted to support or oppose the position of one of the parties.

Classifying sources

Many sources can be considered either primary or secondary, depending on the context in which they are examined. [5] Moreover, the distinction between primary and secondary sources is subjective and contextual, [17] so that precise definitions are difficult to make. [18] A book review, when it contains the opinion of the reviewer about the book rather than a summary of the book, becomes a primary source. [19] [20]

If a historical text discusses old documents to derive a new historical conclusion, it is considered to be a primary source for the new conclusion. Examples in which a source can be both primary and secondary include an obituary [21] or a survey of several volumes of a journal counting the frequency of articles on a certain topic. [21]

Whether a source is regarded as primary or secondary in a given context may change, depending upon the present state of knowledge within the field. [22] For example, if a document refers to the contents of a previous but undiscovered letter, that document may be considered "primary", since it is the closest known thing to an original source; but if the letter is later found, it may then be considered "secondary" [23]

In some instances, the reason for identifying a text as the "primary source" may devolve from the fact that no copy of the original source material exists, or that it is the oldest extant source for the information cited. [24]


Historians must occasionally contend with forged documents that purport to be primary sources. These forgeries have usually been constructed with a fraudulent purpose, such as promulgating legal rights, supporting false pedigrees, or promoting particular interpretations of historic events. The investigation of documents to determine their authenticity is called diplomatics.

For centuries, Popes used the forged Donation of Constantine to bolster the Papacy's secular power. Among the earliest forgeries are false Anglo-Saxon charters, a number of 11th- and 12th-century forgeries produced by monasteries and abbeys to support a claim to land where the original document had been lost or never existed. One particularly unusual forgery of a primary source was perpetrated by Sir Edward Dering, who placed false monumental brasses in a parish church. [25] In 1986, Hugh Trevor-Roper authenticated the Hitler Diaries, which were later proved to be forgeries. Recently, forged documents have been placed within the UK National Archives in the hope of establishing a false provenance. [26] [27] However, historians dealing with recent centuries rarely encounter forgeries of any importance. [4] :22–25

See also


Related Research Articles

Historiography Umbrella term comprising any body of historical work and the history of historical writing

Historiography is the study of the methods of historians in developing history as an academic discipline, and by extension is any body of historical work on a particular subject. The historiography of a specific topic covers how historians have studied that topic using particular sources, techniques, and theoretical approaches. Scholars discuss historiography by topic—such as the historiography of the United Kingdom, that of WWII, the British Empire, early Islam, and China—and different approaches and genres, such as political history and social history. Beginning in the nineteenth century, with the development of academic history, there developed a body of historiographic literature. The extent to which historians are influenced by their own groups and loyalties—such as to their nation state—remains a debated question.

Historian Scholar who deals with the exploration and presentation of history

A historian is a person who studies and writes about the past and is regarded as an authority on it. Historians are concerned with the continuous, methodical narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race; as well as the study of all history in time. If the individual is concerned with events preceding written history, the individual is a historian of prehistory. Some historians are recognized by publications or training and experience. "Historian" became a professional occupation in the late nineteenth century as research universities were emerging in Germany and elsewhere.

Oral history

Oral history is the collection and study of historical information about individuals, families, important events, or everyday life using audiotapes, videotapes, or transcriptions of planned interviews. These interviews are conducted with people who participated in or observed past events and whose memories and perceptions of these are to be preserved as an aural record for future generations. Oral history strives to obtain information from different perspectives and most of these cannot be found in written sources. Oral history also refers to information gathered in this manner and to a written work based on such data, often preserved in archives and large libraries. Knowledge presented by Oral History (OH) is unique in that it shares the tacit perspective, thoughts, opinions and understanding of the interviewee in its primary form.

National Digital Library Program

The Library of Congress National Digital Library Program (NDLP) is assembling a digital library of reproductions of primary source materials to support the study of the history and culture of the United States. Begun in 1995 after a five-year pilot project, the program began digitizing selected collections of Library of Congress archival materials that chronicle the nation's rich cultural heritage. In order to reproduce collections of books, pamphlets, motion pictures, manuscripts and sound recordings, the Library has created a wide array of digital entities: bitonal document images, grayscale and color pictorial images, digital video and audio, and searchable e-texts. To provide access to the reproductions, the project developed a range of descriptive elements: bibliographic records, finding aids, and introductory texts and programs, as well as indexing the full texts for certain types of content.

Diplomatics, or diplomatic, is a scholarly discipline centred on the critical analysis of documents: especially, historical documents. It focuses on the conventions, protocols and formulae that have been used by document creators, and uses these to increase understanding of the processes of document creation, of information transmission, and of the relationships between the facts which the documents purport to record and reality.

Feminist history refers to the re-reading of history from a woman’s perspective. It is not the same as the history of feminism, which outlines the origins and evolution of the feminist movement. It also differs from women's history, which focuses on the role of women in historical events. The goal of feminist history is to explore and illuminate the female viewpoint of history through rediscovery of female writers, artists, philosophers, etc., in order to recover and demonstrate the significance of women's voices and choices in the past. Feminist History seeks to change the nature of history to include gender into all aspects of historical analysis, while also looking through a critical feminist lens. Jill Matthews states “the purpose of that change is political: to challenge the practices of the historical discipline that have belittled and oppressed women, and to create practices that allow women an autonomy and space for self-definition”

A tertiary source is an index or textual consolidation of primary and secondary sources. Some tertiary sources can be used as an aid to find other sources. The exact definition of tertiary varies by academic field.

Historical method Techniques and guidelines by which historians verify and analyse primary sources and evidence to reliably elaborate history

Historical method is the collection of techniques and guidelines that historians use to research and write histories of the past. Secondary sources, primary sources and material evidence such as that derived from archaeology may all be drawn on, and the historian's skill lies in identifying these sources, evaluating their relative authority, and combining their testimony appropriately in order to construct an accurate and reliable picture of past events and environments.

Source criticism is the process of evaluating an information source, i.e. a document, a person, a speech, a fingerprint, a photo, an observation, or anything used in order to obtain knowledge. In relation to a given purpose, a given information source may be more or less valid, reliable or relevant. Broadly, "source criticism" is the interdisciplinary study of how information sources are evaluated for given tasks.

Historiographical Institute of the University of Tokyo

The Historiographical Institute of the University of Tokyo is a research institution affiliated with the University of Tokyo that is devoted to the analysis, compilation, and publication of historical source materials concerning Japan. Since its foundation in 1869, the Institute has been a major center of Japanese historical research, and makes historical sources available through its library, publications, and databases.

Archival science, or archival studies, is the study and theory of building and curating archives, which are collections of documents, recordings and data storage devices.

Finding aid

A finding aid, in the context of archival science, is a tool containing detailed, indexed, and processed information about a specific collection of records within an archive. Finding aids often consist of a documentary inventory and description of the materials, their source, and their structure. The finding aid for a collection is usually compiled by the collection's entity of origin, provenance, or by an archivist or librarian during archival processing. The finding aid serves the purpose of locating specific information within the collection. The finding aid can also help the archival repository manage their materials and resources.

Ethnohistory is the study of cultures and indigenous peoples customs by examining historical records as well as other sources of information on their lives and history. It is also the study of the history of various ethnic groups that may or may not still exist. The term is most commonly used in writing about the history of the Americas.

A source text is a text from which information or ideas are derived. In translation, a source text is the original text that is to be translated into another language.

Recorded history Historical narrative based on a written record or other documented communication

Recorded history or written history is a historical narrative based on a written record or other documented communication. It contrasts with other narratives of the past, such as mythological, oral or archeological traditions. For broader world history, recorded history begins with the accounts of the ancient world around the 4th millennium BC, and coincides with the invention of writing. For some geographic regions or cultures, written history is limited to a relatively recent period in human history because of the limited use of written records. Moreover, human cultures do not always record all of the information relevant to later historians, such as the full impact of natural disasters or the names of individuals. Recorded history for particular types of information is therefore limited based on the types of records kept. Because of this, recorded history in different contexts may refer to different periods of time depending on the topic.

The European History Network has run a number of projects under the banner of the Creating Links and Overviews for a New History Agenda (CLIOH) since 1988, including CLIOH, CLIOHnet and CLIOHnet2. Both CLIOHRES and CLIOH-WORLD are currently in operation as of December 2011. It was initially founded as the ECTS History Network, a pilot project of the ECTS.

History The study of the past as it is described in written documents

History is the study of the past. Events occurring before the invention of writing systems are considered prehistory. "History" is an umbrella term that relates to past events as well as the memory, discovery, collection, organization, presentation, and interpretation of information about these events. Historians place the past in context using historical sources such as written documents, oral accounts, ecological markers, and material objects including art and artifacts.

Digital history is the use of digital media to further historical analysis, presentation, and research. It is a branch of the digital humanities and an extension of quantitative history, cliometrics, and computing. Digital history is commonly digital public history, concerned primarily with engaging online audiences with historical content, or, digital research methods, that further academic research. Digital history outputs include: digital archives, online presentations, data visualizations, interactive maps, time-lines, audio files, and virtual worlds to make history more accessible to the user. Recent digital history projects focus on creativity, collaboration, and technical innovation, text mining, corpus linguistics, network analysis, 3D modeling, and big data analysis. By utilizing these resources, the user can rapidly develop new analyses that can link to, extend, and bring to life existing histories

Secondary source Document that discusses information originally presented elsewhere

In scholarship, a secondary source is a document or recording that relates or discusses information originally presented elsewhere. A secondary source contrasts with a primary source, which is an original source of the information being discussed; a primary source can be a person with direct knowledge of a situation or a document created by such a person.

Archival research

Archival research is a type of research which involves seeking out and extracting evidence from archival records. These records may be held either in collecting institutions, such as libraries and museums, or in the custody of the organization that originally generated or accumulated them, or in that of a successor body. Archival research can be contrasted with (1) secondary research, which involves identifying and consulting secondary sources relating to the topic of enquiry; and (2) with other types of primary research and empirical investigation such as fieldwork and experiment.


  1. "Journalism: Primary Sources". Pepperdine University. Retrieved 17 January 2018.
  2. "Primary, secondary and tertiary sources". University Libraries, University of Maryland.
  3. "Primary and secondary sources Archived 1 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine ". Ithaca College Library.
  4. 1 2 3 Oscar Handlin and Arthur Meier Schlesinger, Harvard Guide to American History (1954)
  5. 1 2 3 4 Kragh, Helge (1989). An Introduction to the Historiography of Science. Cambridge University Press. p. 121. ISBN   0-521-38921-6. [T]he distinction is not a sharp one. Since a source is only a source in a specific historical context, the same source object can be both a primary or secondary source according to what it is used for.
  6. 1 2 Cipolla, Carlo M. (1992). Between Two Cultures:An Introduction to Economic History. W. W. Norton & Co. p. 27. ISBN   978-0-393-30816-7.
  7. Sreedharan, E. (2004). A Textbook of Historiography, 500 B.C. to A.D. 2000. Orient Longman. p. 302. ISBN   81-250-2657-6. [I]t is through the primary sources that the past indisputably imposes its reality on the historian. That this imposition is basic in any understanding of the past is clear from the rules that documents should not be altered, or that any material damaging to a historian's argument or purpose should not be left out or suppressed. These rules mean that the sources or texts of the past have integrity and that they do indeed 'speak for themselves', and that they are necessary constraints through which past reality imposes itself on the historian.
  8. "Primary Sources - Religion". Research Guides at Tufts University. 26 August 2014. Retrieved 15 January 2014.
  9. Howell, Martha C.; Prevenier, Walter. (2001). From reliable sources: an introduction to historical method. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. pp. 20–22. ISBN   0-8014-8560-6.
  10. Cripps, Thomas (1995). "Historical Truth: An Interview with Ken Burns". American Historical Review. The American Historical Review, Vol. 100, No. 3. 100 (3): 741–764. doi:10.2307/2168603. JSTOR   2168603.
  11. "Primary Sources: what are they?" Archived 8 February 2009 at the Wayback Machine . Lafayette College Library.
  12. 1 2 Marwick, Arthur. "Primary Sources: Handle with Care". In Sources and Methods for Family and Community Historians: A Handbook edited by Michael Drake and Ruth Finnegan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. ISBN   0-521-46580-X
  13. Ross, Jeffrey Ian (2004). "Taking Stock of Research Methods and Analysis on Oppositional Political Terrorism". The American Sociologist. 35 (2): 26–37. doi:10.1007/BF02692395. S2CID   143532955. The analysis of secondary source information is problematic. The further an investigator is from the primary source, the more distorted the information may be. Again, each new person may put his or her spin on the findings.
  14. Iredale, David (1973). Enjoying archives: what they are, where to find them, how to use them. Newton Abbot, David and Charles. ISBN   0-7153-5669-0.
  15. Barbara W. Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan, The Oral History Manual (2002)
  16. Library of Congress, " Analysis of Primary Sources" online 2007
  17. Dalton, Margaret Stieg; Charnigo, Laurie (September 2004). "Historians and Their Information Sources". College & Research Libraries. 65 (5): 419. doi: 10.5860/crl.65.5.400 . Retrieved 3 January 2017. Open Access logo PLoS transparent.svg
  18. Delgadillo, Roberto; Lynch, Beverly (May 1999). "Future Historians: Their Quest for Information". College & Research Libraries. 60 (3): 245–259, at 253. doi: 10.5860/crl.60.3.245 . [T]he same document can be a primary or a secondary source depending on the particular analysis the historian is doing. Open Access logo PLoS transparent.svg
  19. Princeton (2011). "Book reviews". Scholarly definition document. Princeton. Retrieved 22 September 2011.
  20. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (2011). "Book reviews". Scholarly definition document. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Archived from the original on 10 September 2011. Retrieved 22 September 2011.
  21. 1 2 Duffin, Jacalyn (1999). History of Medicine: A Scandalously Short Introduction. University of Toronto Press. p. 366. ISBN   0-8020-7912-1.
  22. Henige, David (1986). "Primary Source by Primary Source? On the Role of Epidemics in New World Depopulation". Ethnohistory. Ethnohistory, Vol. 33, No. 3. 33 (3): 292–312, at 292. doi:10.2307/481816. JSTOR   481816. PMID   11616953. [T]he term 'primary' inevitably carries a relative meaning insofar as it defines those pieces of information that stand in closest relationship to an event or process in the present state of our knowledge. Indeed, in most instances the very nature of a primary source tells us that it is actually derivative.…[H]istorians have no choice but to regard certain of the available sources as 'primary' since they are as near to truly original sources as they can now secure
  23. Henige 1986 , p. 292.
  24. Ambraseys, Nicholas; Melville, Charles Peter; Adams, Robin Dartrey (1994). The Seismicity of Egypt, Arabia, and the Red Sea. Cambridge University Press. p. 7. ISBN   0-521-39120-2. The same chronicle can be a primary source for the period contemporary with the author, a secondary source for earlier material derived from previous works, but also a primary source when these earlier works have not survived
  25. Everyone has Roots: An Introduction to English Genealogy by Anthony J. Camp, published by Genealogical Pub. Co., 1978
  26. "Introduction to record class R4". The National Archives. Retrieved 8 March 2015.
  27. Leppard, David (4 May 2008). "Forgeries revealed in the National Archives – Times Online". The Sunday Times. Retrieved 4 July 2011.


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