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Guide to Using Primary Sources
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What is a Primary Source?
A primary source is any material providing a firsthand account of an event by an observer(s) or participant(s) or providing direct evidence concerning a topic under research.
Primary sources enable researchers to discover as accurately as possible what actually happened during a particular historical event or time period. A primary source reflects the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer.
Diaries, letters, journals, speeches, interviews, memos and manuscripts.Unique documents, either handwritten or typed, may vary in length from a single note or letter to large grouping of papers. Most often they are documents created by individuals describing events in which they were observers or participants.
Memoirs and autobiographies. Accounts of events written by participants or observers long after the event(s) occurred. Memoirs and autobiographies generally are considered less reliable than diaries or letters because of bias, the perspective developed after the passage of time, and failing memory.
Government records. Official records generated by and through international, federal, state, and local institutions and agencies. Some examples include wills; deeds; court cases; birth, death, and marriage records; government agency reports and data; census records; and licenses. Many government records are recognized as official records and are often used as legal evidence.
Organizational records. Constitution, by-laws, minutes, reports, and correspondence provide information about the formation, purpose, and activities of a business or an organization.
Published materials. Newspapers, magazine and journal articles, and books written at the time of the event can offer an account of an event by a participant, journalist, or other observer. A primary source article offers only a report or an account of an event, not an analysis or an interpretation.
Visual and Audio records. Original photographs (and negatives), audio and video recordings, and moving pictures provide visual and audio documentation of an event.
Research data. Field notes, data sets, results of scientific experiments, or recorded observations provide information or record of conditions at a particular moment in time.
Original artifacts. Physical objects such as original artwork, tools, utensils, clothing, buildings, and furniture made at the time of the event.
How Can a Primary Source be Evaluated?
To evaluate a primary source document, it is necessary to ask several questions:
What is the document?
Who created the document?
When was the document created?
Why was the document created?
What is the document’s purpose?
How Does a Primary Source Differ From a Secondary Source?
A secondary source provides an interpretation, explanation, analysis, description or restatement of a primary source. Also, some secondary sources offer an argument or point of view in an effort to persuade.
Formats of Primary Sources
Primary sources are unique documents. Sometimes primary source documents are transcribed, digitized, or printed and then compiled, duplicated (microfilmed or photocopied) or published. Reprinted and reproduced primary source materials may include published diaries, letters, collected speeches, government documents, microfilmed newspaper articles and records of businesses or organizations, and videotapes from documentary film footage. Scanned images of primary sources such as letters, diaries, journals, and photographs frequently appear on the Internet.
Below are examples of different kinds of primary source documents that are part of the Manuscript Collections of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center. The date, creator, and purpose of each document are known. They serve as examples of primary source documents that have been reformatted (scanned, digitized, and/or copied); however, each original document or record can be examined by researchers at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center.