A primary source is a document or record containing firsthand information or original data on an event, object, person, or work of art. Primary sources are usually created by individuals who experienced the event and recorded or wrote about it. Because of this, primary sources usually reflect the viewpoint of the participant or observer. 

Examples of primary sources include:

Original research studies have a hypothesis, methods, results and a discussion/conclusion Speeches Oral Histories Manuscripts Court Cases Play or Short story
Letters Memoirs Pamphlets Official recordings of a business, including financial ledgers and labor files Artifacts Audio or Video recordings
Diaries Photographs Newspapers written at the time of the event Maps Patents Census Figures

Determining whether or not something is a primary source depends on the topic you are researching. Primary sources are almost always produced in the time period you are researching.

For example, newspaper articles can be both primary and secondary sources. A newspaper article that recounts the events of the Battle of Gettysburg would be a primary source if it was printed in July of 1863, which is when the battle occurred. A newspaper today could do a story on the Battle of Gettysburg, but because it is so far removed from the event, it wouldn't be considered a primary source.

Common primary sources for U.S. slavery topics include:

  • Slave narratives
  • Diaries, letters, and biographies
  • Newspaper articles written at the time
  • Pamphlets
  • Photographs 

Asking the Right Questions

Here are some questions you can ask when you are ready to study your primary source document. These questions can help you gather evidence from a source so you can use it to support claims in your assignments.

Basic Questions:

  1. What is it?
  2. Who made it?
  3. When was it made?
  4. How was it made?
  5. Where was it made?

Questions about Purpose/Meaning:

  1. Why was the source written/made?
  2. Who is the intended audience or user?
  3. What is the bias of the source of this information?
  4. What historical information does this source provide?
  5. What was the original purpose of the source?
  6. How does this source alter or fit into existing interpretations of the past?