US History Final Paper (Clark, Laffey)

History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme. -Mark Twain

What's a Primary Source?

Together, primary and secondary sources make up the key element of quality historical research.

Primary Sources are original documents or accounts created at the time of an historical event or era. Memoirs, oral histories, and interviews are considered primary sources when they record direct eyewitness accounts to an event or era.

Types of primary sources include:

  • Letters & Diaries
  • Speeches
  • Interviews & Memoirs
  • Literary works
  • Buildings & Artifacts
  • Government Documents
  • Newspaper articles
  • Maps & Images
  • Sound Recordings
  • Works of Art
  • Research Data
  • Movies & Video
These sources serve as the raw material to interpret the past, and when they are used along with previous interpretations by historians, they provide the resources necessary for historical research.
Secondary sources comment upon, explain, or interpret primary sources. They may include scholarly books, journal and magazine articles, encyclopedias, dictionaries, biographies, reviews, and textbooks. Keep in mind that, like any good retelling, the closer a secondary source is to the primary information, the more accurate.

Source: ALA's Reference and User Service Association

Evaluating Primary Sources

Primary materials need to be carefully read and interpreted. Some questions to ask include:

  1. Who created the source and for what original purpose?
  2. Did the creator have firsthand knowledge?
  3. What biases or hidden agendas did the creator have? Is the document meant to persuade or inform?
  4. Was the source originally meant to be private or public?
  5. When was the source created? Soon after the event, years later?

For more explanation on how to use and interpret primary sources see:

US Primary Sources, by format

Thanks to technology, libraries, archives, and museums around the country are digitizing their collections—making it possible to view thousands of primary source collections formerly restricted in access. Here are a few worth exploring...


Books & Monographs

Government Documents


Personal Accounts


Mixed Collections

Specific Topics

Newspapers & Magazines