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Primary Sources

Introduction to the nature of primary sources and how to find them at the University of Michigan, including resources on campus, external to campus, and online.

History Librarian

Maura Seale's picture
Maura Seale
Contact:
209 Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
734-647-9301
Website

About This Guide

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.

What Are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are a way of interacting directly with the past: they are first-hand accounts of social, political, cultural, and scientific events, recorded or created by people who had a direct connection with the event, place, or time period. 

Primary sources:

  • are documents (texts, images, maps, statistics, music, research data) that were created at a time closely associated with an event, person, idea, or period that you are studying.
  • are often a first-hand account or otherwise closely chronologically connected to a point in time that you are researching.  
  • may be created later by someone with first-hand experience of an event (memoirs or autobiographies, for example).

Secondary sources:

  • discuss and analyze primary sources.
  • are secondary because they are at least one step removed from the primary sources they discuss.
  • are created with the benefit of hindsight, which may offer insights not available from first-hand experiences.

Tertiary sources:

  • discuss and analyze secondary sources.
  • are exemplified by encyclopedia articles and Wikipedia entries.

Are there exceptions? Yes! Sometimes what we think of as secondary sources become primary sources, depending on how you are using them. For example, if you are analyzing how scholars from the 1950s talked about women's literature, and consulted textbooks and articles 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.

Examples of Primary Sources

Literary and cultural:

  • novels, plays, poems (both published and in manuscript form)
  • television shows, movies, or videos
  • paintings or photographs

People:

  • interviews, letters, journals, oral histories, diaries
  • census records
  • obituaries
  • autobiographies

Data:

  • polls
  • census records

Scientific information:

  • experiements
  • observations or field notes
  • clinical studies