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ENG 101: College Writing (Quick): Primary Sources

Primary Sources Based on Academic Discipline

Primary sources in the Humanities (history, literature, religion) focus on original documents or accounts contemporary to a specific event or an individual’s life. Terms such as “eyewitness” or “firsthand” are also commonly used to describe these sources. Autobiographical accounts written at a later date are also considered primary sources. Letters, diaries, journal entries, public records as well as contemporaneous newspapers articles offer solid examples of this type of primary source. Fictional works such as short stories or novels written during that specific time period constitute primary documents, too.

In the Arts (art, dance, music, theatre), primary sources are as diverse as the various disciplines in the category. They may include paintings, sculpture, prints, performances, video or audio recordings, scripts, or musical scores.

Social Sciences (psychology, sociology, education) place a heavy emphasis on unanalyzed data sets as primary sources. Numerical data sets such as census figures, opinion polls, surveys or interview transcripts constitute this type of raw, uninterpreted data. A researcher’s field notes are also primary sources in the social sciences.

Primary source documents in the Sciences (biology, ecology, chemistry) focus on original research, ideas, or findings published in academic journals. These articles mark the first publication of such research; and they detail the researcher’s methodology and results. Plant or mineral samples and other artifacts are primary sources as well.

Examples of Primary Sources

  • Diaries or journals (published or unpublished)
  • Letters, correspondence or other personal communications
  • Public documents such as deeds, marriages license or certificates
  • Newspapers and weekly newsmagazines (offering contemporaneous reporting of events)
  • Radio and television transcripts and wire reports
  • Speeches in print or audio formats
  • Court cases
  • Legislative reports, bills and laws
  • Census data
  • Government Documents
  • Maps
  • Art works such as paintings, prints or photographs
  • Museum artifacts
  • Interviews or oral histories
  • Works of literature such as fiction, poetry or drama
  • Statistics including opinion polls

Search for Primary Sources in the SAILS Catalog

Primary source materials are part of many library collections of books, journals, magazines, and realia. However, primary sources are seldom labeled in a catalog as such – this type of material must be parsed out via a careful search, which can be frustrating and time-consuming!

The SAILS catalog can help you to identify certain kinds of primary source material. As part of your search strategy, try adding terms like as “papers,” “manuscripts,” “correspondence,” “letters” or “personal narratives” alongside your keyword, subject, or author searches.

Data and Statistics

The federal government is a great source for all sorts of national statistics; getting world statistics can be more challenging. Check out the Guide to U.S.Government Statistics (below) that contains both!

Think Tanks: Foundations and Research Institutes

A think tank is generally defined as a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization that devotes a "significant portion of its activities to public policy analysis. Think tanks identify policy issues, evaluate ideas, and design public policies." Researchers at these institutions study contemporary problems and provide secondary analysis of primary sources, such as demographic and economic data.  

 

Quick Guide for Identifying Primary Sources

Digitized Collections from Massachusetts Libraries

Search for Primary Sources from These Online Collections

What is Provenance?

The online collections below might lead you to a useful primary source. Once you have found what looks like an interesting collection, what is your next step? According to Richard Pearce-Moses of the Society of American Archivists, researchers "will look critically at where the information comes from. They want to be confident that the sources they have found e.g. scanned images, are reliable and represent an accurate depiction of the original document. Determining the origin or source of an item is referred to as “provenance.” The Society of American Archivists defines provenance as the “information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection.”1