Primary Sources: An Introduction: Home

A guide for defining, finding, and using primary source materials.
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Library Liaison for History, Philosophy, Political Science, & Theology

Primary Source Research

This is introductory description of what can be considered a primary source for the purposes of a research paper. Students and faculty have access to a wide range of primary source databases. It is highly recommended that student contact a liaison librarian for a research consultation when undertaking a research project using these sources. See the link below to set up a consult:

Primary Sources at Marquette

There are many resources for primary source materials at Marquette. Physical examples of these include newspaper microfilms, government or non-profit reports, reproductions of historical documents or text, and published diaries or autobiographies. The link below connects to digitized primary sources databases that can accessed by Marquette students and faculty. Please use the research consultation link above for guidance on any of these materials. 

What is a Primary Source?

A primary source is a first-hand or contemporary account of an event. Primary sources date to the time an event took place and offer original account or thoughts on a topic that has not been framed by second-hand interpretation. Primary sources are usually original materials, but they may be reproduced digitally or republished in a physical format.  

Is It a Primary Source?

This guide from Fresno State University can help you determine if something is a Primary Source. 
If you answer 'yes' to any of the following questions, the resource is most like a Primary Source. 

  • Did the author personally witness or experience the subject in question?
  • Does the author know about this subject because of personal experience rather than having just read about it?
  • Is this source a diary, letter, memoir, autobiography, oral history, or interview of a person with first hand experience of the subject?
  • Is this source an official document or record published at the time of the event by the government, courts, or another organization?
  • Is this source a newspaper or magazine article written at the time of the event?
  • Is this a creative work such as a novel, poem, art or music piece created by a firsthand witness of the subject in question?
  • Is this an excerpt from a primary source, such as the constitution or a letter written by a Civil War soldier that has been imbedded in a secondary source, such as a textbook? Remember, secondary sources may include reprints of primary sources.
  • Is this an artifact or relic such as jewelry, pottery, clothing, music, art, architecture, dance or weaponry that was used by witnesses of the subject in question?
  • Is this a compilation of raw scientific data or statistics, such as census statistics published by the U.S. Census Bureau, that is being published without commentary or interpretation?

What are some Examples of Primary Sources?

  •  newspapers or other news accounts
  •  personal accounts in diaries, letters, interviews, or oral histories
  •  government documents or publications
  •  speeches
  •  photographs/ video footage
  •  internal organizational documents
  •  memoirs or autobiographies
  •  novels, poems, or other works of art

Please note that, in the correct context, many things that are typically considered to be Secondary Sources - such as autobiographies or books about an event or historical period - can also be considered primary sources. For example, if you are writing an analysis of how historians have viewed a certain event over time, written histories on the event can be used as primary sources.