Skip to main content
Ask a Librarian

Research Help

Research Help

Primary Sources: Primary Documents

Explanation of primary and secondary sources.

LC Subject Headings

Use these terms in your catalog search:

Oral history
Personal narratives
Pictorial Works

Primary & Secondary Sources

Primary sources are original, first-hand testimony.
They tell the story as experienced by witnesses. These are invaluable to historians because they help depict what actually happened - or at least what someone who was there says he or she experienced. These may include photographs, interviews, novels, speeches, letters, statistical data, artifacts or treaties.

Here are some questions you may want to keep in mind when considering the source:
•    When, where, and why was it written?
•    What do you know about the author's role in society or world-view?
•    For whom was it intended? What's its purpose?
•    How typical is this opinion for the period?
•    Is there corroboratory evidence for the author's depiction?
•    What is the context of the document?

Secondary sources comment on, interpret, or analyze primary documents.
The individuals who provide these depictions are at least somewhat removed from the event they describe. These may provide historical or critical perspectives. They often try to answer one or more of the above questions. Secondary sources, like primary sources, while offering additional information, are not inherently neutral. You should assess secondary sources at least as critically as primary sources.