This guide is intended to provide a general introduction to primary sources. There are many other research guides created by our subject specialists which go into more depth for those areas. Below are links to selected guides that touch on primary sources for specific disciplines.
Primary sources provide a way of interacting directly with the past by connecting us with the original record of social, political, cultural and scientific works from a specific time period created by those working in that time period. Primary sources can provide unique perspectives, as well as enable a scholar/student to interact with and interpret the source material.
Primary sources are:
Note: Sources that are even further removed (e.g., because they synthesize and describe material from secondary sources) are called tertiary sources. Encyclopedia articles and Wikipedia entries would be considered tertiary sources.
Are there exceptions?
Absolutely! Sometimes what we think of as secondary sources become primary sources, depending on how you are using them.
If you are analyzing how literary scholars from the 1950s talked about women's literature, and consulted textbooks and other scholarly books that would normally be considered secondary sources from that period, you would be using them as primary sources for the point of view that they revealed due to their proximity to that time period. Whether a source is primary or secondary depends on how you use the source.
An original research article is a primary source in that it is the first representation of original work. However, the scholarly work draws on scholarly works that were part of the scholarly conversation before the article was written (as evidenced by the list of references at the end of the article). So although the article can be considered primary, it can also be considered secondary in that it considers and analyzes the articles that came before it.
And sometimes primary sources might be thought of as secondary under certain conditions:
A work is translated into a new language from it's primary source equivalent.
A work is edited after the author's death.
A work is edited to meet a censor's requirement.
Literary or cultural sources:
Example: The play, "Toussaint" by Lorraine Hansberry
Examples of primary sources about people:
Example: The American film director, Robert Altman
Examples of data as primary sources include:
Example: A poll about the outcome of racially charged trial.
Examples of primary sources about scientific information include:
image: Galileo, draft notes and observations of the moons of Jupiter, 1609-10, manuscript in the Special Collections Library, University of Michigan Library
Example: An article (citation to be identified) reporting on a clinical study