Answered By: Woodruff Library
Last Updated: Feb 19, 2015     Views: 416

Primary Sources Defined
  • Primary sources are original materials that provide direct evidence or first-hand testimony concerning a topic or event -- firsthand records created by people who actually participated in or remembered an event and reported on the event and their reactions to it.
  • Primary sources can be contemporary sources created at the time when the event occurred (e.g., letters and newspaper articles) or later (such as, memoirs and oral history interviews).
  • Primary sources may be published or unpublished.  Unpublished sources include unique materials (e.g., family papers) often referred to as archives and manuscripts.
  • What constitutes a primary source varies by discipline -- see Primary Sources by Discipline. How the researcher uses the source generally determines whether it is a primary source or not.

*This material is used with permission from the University of Pittsburgh Library's research guide on Primary Sources

Primary Sources by Discipline

The definition of a primary source varies depending upon the academic discipline and the context in which it is used.

1. In the humanities, a primary source could be defined as something that was created either during the time period being studied or afterward by individuals reflecting on their involvement in the events of that time.

Examples from the humanities:

  • Art: painting, photograph, print, sculpture, film or other work of art, sketch book, architectural model or drawing, building or structure, letter,  organizational records, personal account by artist
  • History: artifact, diary, government report, interview, letter, map, news report, oral history, organizational records, photograph, speech, work of art
  • Literature: interview, letter, manuscript, personal account by writer, poem, work of fiction or drama, contemporary review
  • Music: score, sound recording, contemporary review, letter, personal account by composer or musician

2. In the social sciences, the definition of a primary source would be expanded to include numerical data that has been gathered to analyze relationships between people, events, and their environment.

Examples from the social sciences:

  • Anthropology: artifact, field notes, fossil, photograph
  • Business: market research or surveys, anything that documents a corporation's activities, such as annual reports, meeting minutes, legal documents, marketing materials, and financial records.
  • Communication: websites, blogs, broadcast recordings and transcripts, advertisements and commercials, public opinion polls, and magazines (e.g., Rolling Stone).
  • Economics: company statistics, consumer survey, data series
  • Geography: field notes, census data, maps, satellite images, and aerial photographs.
  • Law: code, statute, court opinion, legislative report
  • Psychology: case study, clinical case report, experimental replication, follow-up study, longitudinal study, treatment outcome study
  • Sociology: cultural artifact, interview, oral history, organizational records, statistical data, survey

3. In the natural sciences, a primary source could be defined as a report of original findings or ideas. These sources often appear in the form of research articles with sections on methods and results.

Examples in the natural sciences:

  • Biology, Chemistry, etc: research or lab notes, genetic evidence, plant specimens, technical reports, and other reports of original research or discoveries (e.g., conference papers and proceedings, dissertations, scholarly articles).

*This material is used with permission from the Lafayette College Library research guide on primary sources.

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