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Primary Sources in History: Getting Started

Use this guide to help you search for primary sources.

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A primary source is firsthand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. Primary sources in history are generally created by people during the time period you are studying. Note: Instructors often have specific definitions for individual classes. If in doubt, ask.

Primary sources may include such things as ads, diaries, speeches, autobiographies, interviews, letters, photographs, government documents, newspaper stories, television and radio broadcasts, and even everyday items of all kinds, such as clothing, toys and furniture.

Consult Going to the Sources (REF D16 .B893) for advice and suggestions on doing historical research and writing.


  Getting Started

  • It is good to know as much as possible about what you are researching, such as the names of people involved, dates, and the names of important documents. Use reference sources like encyclopedias, a good scholarly overview, or your textbook to find this information.
  • Look at the bibliographies, as well as the end notes and footnotes in your secondary sources. Until you have more practice, it is a good idea to examine what the experts have used. Scholars base most of their work on primary sources.