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History: Primary Sources

Primary vs Secondary Sources

Primary sources provide direct or firsthand evidence about an event, person, or object. These sources are contemporary to the events and people described. In the context of historical research, primary sources are sources that were created during the specific time period being studied. 

Identifying primary sources

Determining if a source is a primary sources depends on your topic, the time period, and the context. Think who, what, when, where, and why.

Try to think about what your research question is. Who or what are you investigating? What time period? What area?

If the sources is a first hand or direct account about your topic, then it is a primary source!

Common examples of primary sources include:

  • Newspaper articles
  • Interviews
  • Letters
  • Diaries
  • Memoirs and autobiographies
  • Speeches
  • Pictures
  • Official documentation


Secondary sources were produced after primary sources and provide a synthesis or analysis of the original event and original evidence. 

Some examples of secondary sources:

  • Book reviews
  • Textbooks
  • General history books
  • Scholarly articles
  • Literature reviews
  • Biographies

This section adapted from Michigan State University LibGuide: Introduction to History Research at MSU: Primary vs. Secondary Sources.


ProQuest Research Library (through NYPL): You can access the ProQuest Research Library with a library card to the NYPL. If you are currently in New York you can get a library card number by following these directions. The Research Library database provides access to a variety of databases including historical newspapers that are full text searchable!

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