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HIST 3311 - Sex and Society in American History (Mammina)

Primary Sources

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
  • Letters
  • Diaries
  • Memoirs
  • Speeches
  • Photographs
  • Oral Histories
  • Pamphlets
  • Newspapers written at the time of the event
  • Manuscripts
  • Official recordings of a business, including financial ledgers and labor files
  • Maps
  • Court Cases
  • Artifacts

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.

Why are primary sources important?

Primary sources give us a unique insight into the past. 

  • Individual Significance
    • We can better understand how events influenced people's feelings and how they thought about them at the time.
  • Historical Perspective/Context
    • Primary sources can help us see history from a different perspective by revealing information about the culture at the time of the event. 
  • Causes and Consequences of Events
    • By studying primary sources, historians can get a more detailed understanding of what caused an event and the consequences of that event. The discovery of new primary sources can add dimensions to history that previously were unknown.

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?