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What's a "Primary Source"

What's the difference between a primary source and a secondary source? Sometimes this can be a complicated question, but here are some general guidelines: if something was written by an author who is not an eyewitness or a participant in the historical event or period, it's a secondary source. For example, high school history textbooks and other history books about a particular topic are secondary sources. So are biographies and reference books, such as encyclopedias.

The most basic definition of a primary source is: material written or produced in the time period students are investigating. A letter written by President Lincoln in 1862 is a primary source for a student researching the Civil War era. The memories of a person who was part of a labor union movement also can serve as a primary source, even if you conduct an oral history interview with the person in 2010. He or she was an eyewitness to and a participant in this historical event at the time.

Kinds of primary sources

  • Letters, Diaries, and Other First-person Narratives (Find at least 1)
  • Manuscript/Paper Collections of Non-profit Organizations, Prominent Individuals, or Families
  • Songs/Hymns and Sounds (Find several)
  • Photographs (Find many)
  • Tools, Machines, Furniture, and Other Artifacts
  • Court Proceedings
  • Government Records, including Census Data
  • Newspapers and Magazines (Find at least 2)
Note: Newspapers/magazines published during the time period you are researching are primary sources. An article published in 2001 commemorating an event in 1917 is not a primary source.

Oral history interviews (Find at least 1)

Note: An oral history interview is a focused interview with someone about his/her past and role in history. (The person needs to have been a participant in the historical event or period you are investigating); an interview with an expert on the history of the American Revolution is not a primary source but may be a very good secondary source.) You can conduct an oral history interview yourself. You might also find collections of oral histories conducted by historians. The American Memory collection of the Library of Congress National Digital Library has a wide range of transcripts of oral histories.

Finding Primary Sources
Make phone calls, send e-mail, or write to living historical figures--famous and not famous. If you've chosen a topic that took place during the past 60 years, chances are you can find someone who participated in or experienced it first-hand. Don't overlook people in your own community. There's almost certainly someone in your hometown who participated in civil rights activities, protested government actions, worked for reforms, or fought for freedom at home or abroad.

You should also search:
School Library
Public Library
University Libraries
State and Local Historical Societies and Archives
Your Local Video Store
All Around Your Community
History is everywhere! Look around for:
Personal records, such as diaries and letters
Family and household records
Photo albums
Home movies and videos
Historical artifacts such as tools or furniture
Oral history interviews you can conduct yourself
National Archives and Records Administration
There are great places to find primary sources online! But keep in mind that most institutions have only a tiny fraction--usually less than 2%--of their records online.

Interpreting Primary Sources
Once you find your primary sources, you have the building blocks of your History Day project. Your interpretation of the primary sources you've uncovered is your History Day project. You will develop a thesis, a main point that summarizes what you think these sources from the past say to us in the present. As you puzzle out the meaning of these sources, here are some things to keep in mind:

Don't forget that the historical event or issue you're researching took place in a particular historical context. Be sure to review secondary material as you interpret the primary sources. This will help you think through the significance of your topic in history.

Try These Websites for sources

American memory

Griswold High School
Government, American Studies, World Cultures, PE.

Extra credit