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Historiography: Primary Sources

Primary Sources

For history students, primary sources are materials that were produced during the period you are researching or by people who witnessed or were involved in events. What constitutes a primary source may depend on the context in which you use it.  For example, Winston Churchill's A History of the English-Speaking Peoples would be a secondary source if you were studying the history of England but a primary source if you were studying the life and writings of Churchill.  Thus, many types of materials can be used as primary sources, but you will generally want to look for things like letters, diaries, speeches, company records, government documents, newspapers, films, photographs, artifacts, etc.


¥ Diaries, journals, speeches, interviews, letters, memos, manuscripts and other papers in which individuals describe events in which they were participants or observers.
¥ Memoirs and autobiographies. These may be less reliable than diaries or letters since they are usually written long after events occurred and may be distorted by bias, dimming memory or the revised perspective that may come with hindsight. On the other hand, they are sometimes the only source for certain information.
¥ Records of or information collected by government agencies. Many kinds of records (births, deaths, marriages; permits and licenses issued; census data; etc.) document conditions in the society.
¥ Records of organizations. The minutes, reports, correspondence, etc. of an or ganization or agency serve as an ongoing record of the activity and thinking of that organization or agency.
¥ Published materials (books, magazine and journal articles, newspaper articles) written at the time about a particular event. While these are sometimes accounts by participants, in most cases they are written by journalists or other observers. The important thing is to distinguish between material written at the time of an event as a kind of report, and material written much later, as historical analysis.
¥ Photographs, audio recordings and moving pictures or video recordings, documenting what happened.
¥ Materials that document the attitudes and popular thought of a historical time period. If you are attempting to find evidence documenting the mentality or psychology of a time, or of a group (evidence of a world view, a set of attitudes, or the popular understanding of an event or condition), the most obvious source is public opinion polls taken at the time. Since these are generally very limited in availability and in what they reveal, however, it is also possible to make use of ideas and images conveyed in the mass media, and even in literature, film, popular fiction, textbooks, etc. Again, the point is to use these sources, written or produced at the time, as evidence of how people were thinking.
¥ Research data such as anthropological field notes, the results of scientific experiments, and other scholarly activity of the time.
¥ Artifacts of all kinds: physical objects, buildings, furniture, tools, appliances and household items, clothing, toys.

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