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Primary Sources in History: What is a Primary Source?

What is a primary source? Find primary sources on the Internet and in the library's print and online collections.


Primary sources are materials that provide first-hand information that is factual, without analysis or interpretation.  The accounts may be from the time they occurred or created at a later date by someone with first-hand knowledge; for example, a memoir. 

Types of primary source materials may be words, images, or objects.

Some examples are:

  • Artifacts like fossils, furnuture, clothing, pottery or jewelry
  • Original works of art, literature, or music; e.g., a novel or a painting
  • Autobiographies (not biographies)
  • Correspondence
  • Government documents; e.g., laws, presidential papers
  • Vital records like birth certificates
  • Diaries, letters, interviews, manuscripts
  • Personal narratives
  • Photographs, postcards, maps
  • Published results of clinical trials or experiments
  • Newspaper and magazine articles that contain first-hand factual accounts


Secondary sources provide second-hand information and often are created after the original time period.  The sources analyze, interpret or summarize primary source materials or events.

Some examples are:

  • Biographies
  • Magazine or journal articles about people or events
  • Newspaper editorials
  • Analysis of a primary source
  • Literary criticism
  • Reviews; e.g., of a book or play
  • Political commentary

Example of a Primary Source:

River in the Catskills, painted in 1843 by Thomas Cole, is an original work of art.  It is an example of a primary source.

Example of a Secondary Source:

American vies: essays on American art

John Wilmerding's book, American Views: Essays on American Art is an example of a secondary source. 

The essays in this book analyze and interpret the work of Thomas Cole and other American artists.