Research: Primary Sources

What is a Primary Source

  • ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS (excerpts or translations acceptable): Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records
  • CREATIVE WORKS: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art
  • RELICS OR ARTIFACTS: Pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings

Documents--diaries, letters, drawings, and memoirs--created by those who participated in or witnessed the events of the past tell us something that even the best-written article or book cannot convey. The use of primary sources exposes students to important historical concepts. First, students become aware that all written history reflects an author's interpretation of past events. Therefore, as students read a historical account, they can recognize its subjective nature. Second, through primary sources the students directly touch the lives of people in the past. Further, as students use primary sources, they develop important analytical skills.

To many students, history is seen as a series of facts, dates, and events usually packaged as a textbook. The use of primary sources can change this view.  (National Archives)

Primary Source Examples

Examples of primary sources include:

  • Diary of Anne Frank – Experiences of a Jewish family during WWII
  • The Constitution of Canada – Canadian History
  • A journal article reporting NEW research or findings
  • Weavings and pottery – Native American history
  • Plato’s Republic – Women in Ancient Greece





Confused about Primary vs. Secondary Sources??????

Primary Sources at Yale

Chronicling America

Primary Resources On-Line

United States History

American Memory
The Library of Congress’s National Digital Librarycontains more than 40 collections, which feature historical photos, maps, documents, letters, speeches, recordings, videos, prints, and more.
Documenting the American South
This electronic text archive from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill contains primary source slavery narratives and first-person narratives of the South as well as a digitized library of southern literature.

A Hypertext on American History
This site contains over 100 historical documents relating to United States history, from the 1400s to the present. It includes letters, charters, essays, speeches, journal entries, inaugural addresses, autobiographies, biographies, and more. An outline of American history provides context for the primary source materials.

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial
Learn about the history of the city of St. Louis and the construction of the Gateway Arch through historic photographs at this site.

The Library of Congress
Legislative information, historical exhibits, primary source materials, resources for educators, research tools, and more are available from the Library of Congress.

Mr. Lincoln’s Virtual Library
The Library of Congress presentsinformation on Abraham Lincoln, including the Emancipation Proclamation and his assassination, in this online exhibit of primary sources.

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
NARA preserves historically valuable archives of the U.S. government, including documents, photographs, images, maps, audio clips, letters, speeches, and films. Check out the Exhibit Hall for fascinating primary sources on such topics as the Lincoln assassination and World War II propaganda posters.

National Museum ofAmerican Art
This museum site offers online exhibitions of American art.

New Deal Network
This site contains hundreds of primary sources related to the Depression era and the New Deal, including letters, photographs, posters, political cartoons, government documents, speeches, and more. You can also find background information on New Deal programs.

The Papers of Jefferson Davis
Learn about Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, through his writings. You can also find background information on his life and family.

Truman Presidential Museum & Library
Find primary source documents, photos, letters, journals, and more on 20th century history from the Truman Presidential Library.

Smithsonian Institution
The Smithsonian Institution offers access to primary sources and other resources on a wide variety of topics, including military and political history.

The University of Oklahoma Law Center: A Chronology of US Historical Documents
This site offers an extensive directory of historical documents from pre-colonial days to the present. Many presidential inaugural addresses are included, as are some songs, poems, letters, and more.

The Valley of the Shadow
Learn about the impact of the Civil War on two counties, Pennsylvania’s Franklin County and Virginia’s Augusta County, through the primary source images, documents, letters, newspapers, and maps at this site.

World History

Alex is a comprehensive catalog of books and other works that enables users to find and retrieve the full text of documents on the Internet. It currently indexes almost 1,800 books and shorter texts by author, title, subject, language, and year of publication.

The Chauvet Cave
Learn about the 1994 discovery of Paleolithic cave paintings in France and view photographs of the paintings.

The History Net
This collection of resources highlights topics in United States and world history through eyewitness accounts, interviews, photographs, and other primary and secondary sources.

The Labyrinth
This collection of medieval resources includes an electronic library of poetry and prose in medieval languages, on-line bibliographies, professional directories and news about medieval studies, links to related teaching resources, and information on medieval cultures.

Perseus Project
Perseus is a growing collection of online resources for studying the ancient world. Materials include ancient texts and translations, maps, articles, essays, and images from over 70 museums around the world.

Vincent Voice Library
This site features primary source sound samples, such as speech clips from many U.S. presidents and other notable figures in history.

Searching for Primary Sources

Search by Keyword for Primary Sources:
These are several examples of words that would identify a source as primary

  • charters
  • correspondence
  • diaries
  • early works
  • interviews
  • manuscripts
  • oratory
  • pamphlets
  • personal narratives
  • sources
  • speeches
  • letters
  • documents

Choosing Primary Sources

America in Class

LIFE photo Archive