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Primary Sources for Humanities and Social Sciences : What are Primary Sources?

Guide to locating primary sources, with an emphasis on online sources, in the UW-Madison Libraries' collections for research in the humanities and social sciences.

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs or oral histories. They enable researchers to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period to help them understand and interpret the past. (See definition from the American Library Association's Reference & User Services Association's History Section.)

Examples of primary sources include diaries, speeches, letters, memos, manuscripts, and other papers; memoirs and autobiographies; records of information collected by government agencies and organizations; published materials (books, magazine and journal articles, newspaper articles) written at the time; photographs, audio recordings, and moving pictures or video recordings; research data; and objects or artifacts. 

Primary sources vary by discipline. In history, primary sources are original records that provide firsthand evidence to understand a historical event or period. In literature, primary sources are the original texts (e.g., novels, short stories, plays, etc.). In the arts, primary sources are original works of art or music. In the natural or social sciences, the results of an experiment or study are typically found in scholarly articles or conference papers; these articles and papers that present original results are considered primary sources.

Primary sources are found in a variety of formats: original documents in archives and libraries; materials reprinted in published sources, such as collections of letters, diaries, or autobiographies; microforms; digitized on the Web, or recordings. This guide emphasizes primary sources available online through library subscription databases and free Web sites.

Some examples of types and formats for primary sources include:

  • Books such as personal narratives, memoirs, and autobiographies, collected works, and collections of documents (these may be edited and published after the historical event or time period)
  • Journal and magazine articles 
  • Newspaper articles 
  • Government documents
  • Archival sources such as diaries, interviews, letters, memos, manuscripts, and other papers and records of organizations
  • Multimedia sources such as photographs, audio recordings, and motion pictures or video recording

Use the above tabs to locate primary sources of these different types and formats. The Online Primary Sources tab/page lists primary sources found in library subscription databases and on free Web sites that are varied in type and do not fit one of the above tab categories.

Secondary sources are any published or unpublished works that are a step removed from original sources, usually describing, summarizing, analyzing, evaluating, derived from, or based on primary sources. Some examples of secondary sources are: histories about a topic, works of criticism and interpretation, monographs, textbooks, biographies, dictionaries and encyclopedias, handbooks and manuals, bibliographies, and directories. (See definition from ABC-CLIO Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science.)

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