Skip to Main Content

History: About Primary Sources

Find articles, books, primary sources, and more for your history research papers.

Primary sources: what are they?

Primary source definition for historians

Historians make a distinction between primary and secondary sources.  Primary sources "originate in the time period that historians are studying.  They vary a great deal.  They may include personal memoirs, government documents, transcripts of legal proceedings, oral histories and traditions, archaeological and biological evidence, and visual sources like paintings and photographs" (Storey 2013, 32).  I would add to Storey's definition letters (often called correspondence in published collections), films, maps, newspaper and magazine articles published at the time you're studying, personal papers, meeting minutes, even things like theater/dance costumes!  Check with your professor to see what you may be able to use as a primary source.

A secondary source interprets a primary source.  Journal articles and books are common secondary sources.  You create a secondary source when you write a paper that analyzes and interprets a primary source.


Storey, William Kelleher.  2013.  Writing history: A guide for students.  4th ed.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Primary source formats

In what formats are primary sources found?

Some primary sources are published and some are unpublished.  For example, if you were examining women's role in the American temperance movement, you could use the couple relevant documents reprinted in this published book Women and the national experience: sources in women's history as well as the Martha McClellan Brown papers (this is a link to the finding aid) in our Special Collections & Archives.  The book is published and available from any library or bookstore; the MMB papers are all original documents only available in our Special Collections and have never been published or digitized.

Many primary sources are still on microfilm--digitizing is expensive and time-consuming! Don't fear the 'film: we have some great microform readers on the 2nd floor of Dunbar Library and anyone at the Information Desk will help you get set up, print, or save.

Sometimes unique collections are digitized and made available to anyone online for free. Collections held in museums, national archives, university/college archives, and historical societies are often available. To check if any organization has done this for your topic, Google digital [or some version of this word] collections [your topic keywords] (thanks to the Georgia State history librarian for putting this so well). You can also try (this would capture those by historical societies, for example) but remember that .org sites may be of poor quality--be sure to check who is sponsoring the website and what they are all about! will include U.S. government sites, including our national archives, Smithsonian institutions, and government departments.

The terms sources, documents, primary documents are sometimes useful to identify primary sources published in books or digitized on the internet, so you may also wish to try these terms if you are searching library catalogs or internet search engines for your topic.

Other primary source collections are digitized and are only available through a paid subscription.  Several of the subscription collections to which Wright State subscribes are linked under the subtab Identifying & Accessing Primary Sources in the box labeled "Selected Primary Sources".  These online subscriptions are accessible to Wright State University students, faculty, and staff.

Ask Us

Chat loading...

Questions? Ask a librarian!