Department of History

Primary source essay.

This 3000-word source-based essay focuses on one primary source to shed light on material evaluation in the Enlightenment. To achieve this, the essay will also draw on other primary and secondary sources.

The essay will be marked using the usual history-specific marking criteria for written work . That said, a primary-source essay is a particular type of essay that calls for specific tasks that are not relevant to all other essays.

Like any other essay, this one needs to be an argument--it needs to state a thesis and make a case for that thesis. Unlike other essays, the argument of this essay will centre on a primary source. More details on the task are below.

The thesis. This needs to be related to the theme of the module, namely material evaluation in the Enlightenment. Beyond that, you are free to choose a topic as a function of your own knowledge and interests. It may help to consider some of the theses we have encountered in the secondary readings, such as Emma Spary's thesis that botanical expertise replaced scholarly expertise as the main way of evaluating coffee in France around 1700; or William Ashworth's thesis that the hydrometer was part of the political struggle between producers and the state in eighteenth-century Britain. Your thesis will probably be less ambitious than these, given the constraints of the assignment. But you may find these theses (by Spary, Ashworth, and the other historians we have read) a useful model to follow. The note under 'Contextualise' below may also be useful.

The primary source. This may be any primary source related to material evaluation in the Enlightenment. The one limitation is that it cannot be one of the primary sources we have discussed in detail in seminars, such as Robert Boyle's 1675 article on gold assaying in the Phil. Trans ., or Henry Drax's instructions on the management of a Barbadian sugar plantation. More precisely, you cannot choose the passages from these sources that we discussed in detail in class. For example, you may choose the sections on beer in Leadbetter's Royal Gauger , but not the sections on the distillery. The source may be a written document, but it may also be an object, diagram, painting, or any other historical artefact that sheds light on the past.

Finding a primary source . One way to find the source is through a relevant secondary source. If you are interested in connoisseurship in the fine arts, for example, you might look through the Warwick library catalogue for books on this topic related to the eighteenth century. You might then find, for example, Carol Gibson-Wood's book Jonathan Richardson: Art Theorist of the English Enlightenment , which in turn discusses many relevant primary sources. Another approach is to start with the primary sources themselves by searching through collections of relevant sources. Examples are:

The online archive of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London

Early English Books Online , a database of early modern English texts

The online archive of the English East India Company

Eighteenth-century encyclopaedias, such as Chambers' Cyclopaedia , the fourth edition of which has been digitised

The catalogues of public museums, such as the Oxford Museum for the History of Science and the British Museum

Virtual exhibitions, such as the Intoxicating Spaces exhibition or the Sugar and the Visual Imagination exhibition

Analysing the primary source. Analysing primary sources is more an art than a science, and there are no hard-and-fast rules about how to do it. However, for the purpose of this essay you should do at least the following:

Interpret. Decipher the source so that it can be understood by a non-specialist audience. This may mean explaining technical terms, rephrasing complicated sentences, identifying rhetorical devices or figures of speech, or (for long texts) summarising the argument or narrative.

Explain. Get behind the source to understand its conditions of production. Who was the author? Who was the intended audience? Why, when, how, and where was the source made? Which genre does it belong to (encyclopaedia article, scientific article, merchant correspondence...) and how does it fit into the history of that genre?

Contextualise. Relate the source to wider historical developments of the kind that we have covered in the module, such as the the growth of the fiscal-military state, the growth of a consumer culture, and the outbreak of the French Revolution.

The essay could be structured around these three tasks, with one section on each - but it does not need to be. The important thing is to do these three things as part of your research, and to integrate them into your argument.

Other sources. Although the essay should be centred on one primary source, it does not need to be limited to that source. Indeed, you will need to draw on other primary and secondary sources to make sense of the primary source that you focus on. The expectation is that you will draw on five (or more) secondary sources and one (or more) additional primary sources. The secondary sources can be made of books, book chapters, journal articles, or chapters in edited collections.

Meeting with tutor. All students are strongly encouraged to meet the tutor (during office hours ) to discuss their choice of primary source. This meeting can take place any time in term 2 before the essay deadline, but should be around the time you decide upon that source.

essay primary source

Primary and Secondary Sources: A Comprehensive Guide

essay primary source

Did you know that the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 revolutionized our understanding of ancient texts and biblical history? These ancient manuscripts, dating back over two millennia, were found in the caves of Qumran near the Dead Sea in Israel. Containing texts from the Hebrew Bible, as well as other Jewish writings, the Dead Sea Scrolls serve as a primary source of immense historical and religious significance. This remarkable find showcases the power of primary sources in shedding light on centuries-old events and beliefs, prompting us to explore what is the difference between primary and secondary sources in the pursuit of knowledge.

Primary and Secondary Sources: Short Summary

In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into the fascinating realm of historical research, uncovering the invaluable role played by primary sources—those direct witnesses to the events of the past—and their counterpart, secondary sources, which provide a deeper understanding and analysis of these primary materials. Whether you're a student, a researcher, or simply a curious soul seeking to unravel the mysteries of history, this guide will equip you with the tools and examples to navigate the realm of primary and secondary sources with confidence.

What is a Primary Source: Unraveling the Essence

A primary source refers to original, firsthand accounts or data that provide unique insights into a particular event or topic. These sources can include letters, diaries, photographs, interviews, surveys, or raw data.

They are invaluable because they offer a direct connection to the subject matter, giving researchers the opportunity to analyze and interpret information from the most authentic perspective.

Primary source examples may include:

  • Historical documents like letters, speeches, or official government records
  • Personal accounts such as diaries or memoirs
  • Original research studies or experiments
  • Artifacts or physical objects from a specific time period or culture
  • Original photographs or videos captured during an event

What are Secondary Sources: Exploring the Foundations

Secondary sources are documents or materials that interpret, analyze, or summarize information from primary sources. They provide a foundational understanding of a topic by drawing upon primary sources and offering expert insights and perspectives. Examples of secondary sources include textbooks, scholarly articles, biographies, and review articles.

Secondary sources are valuable in research because they offer a broader context and analysis of the information found in primary sources. They help researchers gain a deeper understanding of a subject, identify patterns or trends, and evaluate the credibility and reliability of the information. Secondary sources are especially useful when researching complex or specialized topics that require expert interpretation.

According to our research paper writing service , some advantages of using secondary sources include the following:

  • Accessibility: Secondary sources are often readily available and easily accessible through libraries, databases, and online platforms.
  • Time-saving: Secondary sources provide condensed and synthesized information, saving researchers time and effort in collecting and analyzing primary sources.
  • Contextualization: Secondary sources offer a broader context for understanding primary sources, providing historical, social, or cultural background to the research topic.
  • Analysis and interpretation: Secondary sources often analyze and interpret primary source data, offering different perspectives and expert opinions.

Difference between Primary and Secondary Sources

Understanding the difference between the examples of primary and secondary sources is essential for conducting thorough research.

Primary sources are original materials that provide firsthand accounts or direct evidence of an event, topic, or period. They include documents, letters, diaries, interviews, photographs, and artifacts. These sources offer unique insights and perspectives from the time period being studied. For instance, when writing a poetry analysis essay example , a primary source could be the actual poem itself. Analyzing the words, themes, and literary techniques used in the poem provides a direct engagement with the poet's original work, allowing for a deeper understanding and interpretation of their artistic expression.

On the other hand, secondary sources interpret, analyze, and summarize information from primary sources. They are created by individuals who were not present during the events they are discussing. Secondary sources include textbooks, academic articles, books, documentaries, and reviews. They provide a broader understanding of a topic and often offer critical analysis and synthesis of multiple primary sources.

Here's a quick summary of the differences between primary and secondary sources:

Primary and Secondary Sources

When to Use Primary and Secondary Sources

Knowing when to use primary and secondary sources is essential in conducting thorough and reliable research. To help you navigate this important decision, let's explore some considerations and examples of primary and secondary sources:

Primary Sources:

  • When seeking firsthand accounts or original data related to an event, period, or topic.
  • When conducting historical or sociological research, primary sources provide direct evidence from the time period or individuals involved.
  • When studying original research reports or scientific experiments.
  • When analyzing personal interviews or diaries that offer valuable insights and perspectives.

Secondary Sources:

  • When wanting to understand and interpret primary sources from a different perspective or context.
  • When seeking expert analysis and interpretation of primary sources.
  • When building upon previous research and incorporating established scholarly knowledge into your own work.
  • When looking for comprehensive literature reviews or summaries of research on a particular topic.

Furthermore, if you're in search of a flawless thesis statement example for your research, we have you covered on that front as well!

Primary and Secondary Source Examples

As you already know, primary sources offer firsthand accounts or original data, while secondary sources provide analysis and interpretation of primary sources. Here are some examples of each:

Primary and Secondary Sources

How to Determine If a Source is Primary or Secondary

Determining whether a source is a primary or secondary source can sometimes be a bit challenging, but there are some key factors to consider. Here are some ways to determine if a source is primary or secondary:

  • Date of Publication: Primary sources are typically created close to the time of the event or period being studied, while secondary sources are usually written after the fact.
  • Author's Perspective: Primary sources are often written by people who were directly involved in the event or period, while secondary sources are usually written by researchers or historians analyzing the primary sources.
  • Intended Audience: Primary sources are usually intended for a specific audience at the time they were created, while secondary sources are typically created for a broader audience.
  • Content: Primary sources contain firsthand accounts, original data, or direct evidence of the event or period in question, while secondary sources interpret, analyze, or critique primary sources.

Understanding the distinction between primary and secondary sources can also be instrumental when crafting introductions for essays . By clearly stating the sources you will be using and their respective roles, you set the stage for a well-structured and credible essay that engages readers and showcases your research prowess. Remember to also consider the context and purpose of your primary and secondary sources in order to make an informed decision.

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Primary and Secondary Sources: Which One is Better in Research

When it comes to research, the question of whether primary or secondary sources are better is not a matter of superiority but rather the relevance and purpose of the research.

Primary sources provide firsthand information or original data that comes directly from the source. They have a sense of immediacy and authenticity, making them valuable for historical research, sociological studies, or analyzing original documents. Examples of primary sources include diaries, letters, interviews, surveys, and eyewitness accounts.

On the other hand, secondary sources interpret, analyze, or summarize information from primary sources. They are created by someone who did not directly experience or witness the events or phenomena being discussed. Secondary sources include textbooks, journal articles, scholarly journals, and books that provide analysis or commentary on a particular topic.

The choice between primary and secondary sources depends on the research goals and the depth of analysis required. Primary sources are essential for original research, while secondary sources provide a broader understanding of a topic by incorporating multiple perspectives and expert analysis. Ultimately, the best approach is often a combination of both primary and secondary source examples, using them in tandem to paint a comprehensive and well-rounded picture.

In the meantime, you can enhance your academic writing by learning how to write transition sentences !

What Are Some Examples of Primary Sources?

Here are some more examples of primary sources:

  • Historical speeches and documents
  • Autobiographies and memoirs
  • Court records and legal documents
  • Maps and geographical surveys
  • Personal journals and diaries of historical figures
  • Works of art, such as paintings or sculptures, from the time period
  • Correspondence between individuals or groups
  • Census records and population surveys
  • Musical compositions and scores from the era
  • Advertisements and promotional materials from the time period

Why Do I Need to Use Both Primary and Secondary Sources in My Research?

Using a combination of primary and secondary sources allows you to corroborate information, identify patterns, and develop a more well-rounded perspective on your research topic.

Firstly, primary sources offer an unfiltered perspective from the time period being studied, allowing you to access the original information, thoughts, and experiences of the people involved. This firsthand information can be invaluable in understanding the context, motivations, and intricacies of the subject matter.

However, primary sources may be limited in their scope or biased due to the perspectives of the individuals involved. This is where secondary sources come into play. Secondary sources are scholarly works that analyze and interpret primary sources. They provide critical analysis, contextualization, and synthesis of information from multiple primary sources. By consulting secondary sources, you gain a broader understanding of the topic, access different interpretations, and benefit from the expertise and research of other scholars.

Is a Newspaper Article a Primary or Secondary Source?

A newspaper article can be both a primary and a secondary source, depending on the context and purpose of your research.

If you are examining a newspaper article from the time period being studied to gain insight into contemporary events, attitudes, or public opinion, it is considered a primary source. It provides a direct snapshot of the news and information available at that specific moment.

However, if you are using a newspaper article from the past as a source for historical analysis or to support your arguments, it would be considered a secondary source. In this case, the article is being used as a reference or piece of evidence to support or discuss a larger topic or historical event.

What Defines a Primary Source?

The key defining characteristic of a primary source is its proximity to the event or time period being researched, providing direct access to the original information and perspectives. Understanding the difference between primary and secondary sources is crucial in conducting thorough and reliable research, as primary sources offer immediate access to original information, while secondary sources provide analysis, interpretation, and synthesis of primary sources.

Final Thoughts

In a nutshell, understanding the importance of primary and secondary sources is like having a secret key to unlock a treasure chest of knowledge. By using both types of sources in your research, you get to dive deep into the past and discover firsthand accounts and different perspectives. Primary sources take you right to the heart of historical events, connecting you directly with the people and moments that shaped history. Secondary sources, on the other hand, act as friendly guides, helping you make sense of the primary sources by analyzing and interpreting them.

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Finding Sources

Primary and secondary sources.

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Knowing the difference between primary and secondary sources will help you determine what types of sources you may need to include in your research essay. In general, primary sources are original works (original historical documents, art works, interviews, etc.), while secondary sources contain others’ insights and writings about those primary works (scholar articles about historical documents, art works, interviews, etc.).

While many scholarly sources are secondary sources, you will sometimes be asked to find primary sources in your research. For this reason, you should understand the differences between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

  • Primary sources allow researchers to get as close as possible to original ideas, events, and empirical research as possible. Such sources may include creative works, first hand or contemporary accounts of events, and the publication of the results of empirical observations or research. These include diaries, interviews, speeches, photographs, etc.
  • Secondary sources analyze, review, or summarize information in primary resources or other secondary resources. Even sources presenting facts or descriptions about events are secondary unless they are based on direct participation or observation. These include biographies, journal articles, books, and dissertations.
  • Tertiary sources provide overviews of topics by synthesizing information gathered from other resources. Tertiary resources often provide data in a convenient form or provide information with context by which to interpret it. These are often grouped together with secondary sources. They include encyclopedias and dictionaries.

Analyze your topic/working thesis to determine the types of sources that can help with support.  For example, if your topic deals with Van Gogh’s use of pale green and what it connotes in his later paintings, you will need to couple evidence from primary sources (images of the paintings themselves) with secondary sources (other scholars’ views, discussions, and logical arguments about the same topic).  If your working thesis deals with the benefits of regular exercise for older adults in their 70s-90s, you may couple evidence from primary sources (uninterpreted data from research studies, interviews with older adults or experts in the field) with secondary sources (interpretations of research studies).  In some cases, you may find that your research is mostly from secondary sources and that’s fine, depending on your topic and working thesis.  Just make sure to consider, consciously, the types of sources that can best be used to support your own ideas.

The following video provides a clear overview of primary and secondary sources.

  • Primary and Secondary Sources. Revision and adaptation of the page What Are Scholarly Articles? at is a revision and adaptation of the sources listed below. Authored by : Susan Oaks. Provided by : Empire State College, SUNY OER Services. Project : College Writing. License : CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
  • What Are Scholarly Articles?. Provided by : Lumen Learning. Project : English Composition I. License : CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
  • Primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. Provided by : Virginia Tech University Libraries. Located at : . License : CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
  • Secondary Sources in their Natural Habitat. Authored by : Amy Guptill. Provided by : SUNY. Located at : . Project : Writing in College. License : CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
  • Walk, Talk, Cook, Eat: A Guide to Using Sources. Authored by : Cynthia R. Haller. Provided by : Saylor. Located at : . Project : Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing Vol. 2. License : CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
  • Scholarly Sources. Provided by : Boundless. Located at : . Project : Boundless Writing. License : CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
  • image of open book. Authored by : Hermann. Provided by : Pixabay. Located at : . License : CC0: No Rights Reserved
  • video Understanding Primary & Secondary Sources. Provided by : Imagine Easy Solutions. Located at : . License : Other . License Terms : Standard YouTube License

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essay primary source

When writing a synthesis essay , you will need both primary and secondary sources. The differences between primary and secondary sources are where they come from and how you use them. Primary sources come from firsthand accounts of your essay's topic. They serve the purpose of providing you with original research sources and authoritative accounts of your topic. There are multiple types of primary sources, and which ones you use depends on the topic and purpose of your essay.

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Primary Source Definition

A primary source is anything that gives you direct evidence about the people, events, or phenomena that you are researching.

Primary sources are first-hand accounts of a topic from people who had a direct connection with it.

First-hand accounts can take several forms. For now, just think of primary sources as any sources that give you this firsthand account of your topic.

Primary source. A keychain sits on a map. StudySmarter.

Difference Between Primary and Secondary Sources

There are two key differences between primary sources and secondary sources: a) where they come from and b) how you use them. You will likely use both primary and secondary sources in a synthesis essay . They complement each other.

Secondary sources are sources that provide second-hand explanations or analyses of primary sources.

Secondary sources come from researchers like you! They synthesize information from primary sources to offer a unique viewpoint. You can think of a synthesis essay as a secondary source .

To synthesize means to connect different pieces of information like puzzle pieces into one cohesive argument or explanation.

Use the table below to gain a sense of the differences between primary and secondary sources.

Sometimes secondary sources are used as primary sources. It all depends on how you are using them.

Just remember:

  • If you use a source to draw your own conclusions, you are using it as a primary source.
  • If you use a source to borrow someone else's conclusions to support your own, you are using it as a secondary source .

To understand the Civil War, you might use a history textbook as a secondary source. It describes and interprets the Civil War, but it does not come from the Civil War period. You would use the information it provides to back up your ideas.

But what if you want to understand how the Civil War is taught? You might use a history textbook as a primary source. You would analyze the information it includes and the language it uses. You would use it to draw your own conclusions about how the Civil War is taught in history textbooks.

How to Tell the Difference Between Primary Sources and Secondary Sources

When determining whether a source is primary or secondary, ask yourself two key questions:

  • Does this source come from someone directly involved in my subject? Or does it come from someone who does not have direct experience with my subject but knows a lot about it?
  • ` How do I plan to use this source? Will I analyze this source to draw my own conclusions? Or will I use this source for background information and/or other peoples' ideas on my subject?

Purpose of Primary Sources

Primary sources are important for conducting original research, providing credible evidence, and becoming an authority on your subject. Without primary sources, nobody would ever come up with new ideas! They are the foundation of original research.

Primary Sources, Credibility and Authority, StudySmarter

Primary Sources Give You Access to the Unknown

Whenever you want to know a store's business hours, you usually look it up online. But how did that information get online? Somebody found out the store's business hours from a primary source. They either visited the store directly or asked somebody that works there.

Think of primary sources as information directly from the time, place, or person you want to know about.

Primary Sources Provide Credible Evidence

Have you ever heard the phrase "straight from the horse's mouth"? This phrase comes from horse racing. It means the best source on who will win a race is the horses themselves! Think of primary sources as the "horse's mouth" here. There is no better source than one which comes directly from the time, location, or event you are studying.

Primary sources make you the authority on your subject

Secondary sources are great for getting other people's ideas on your subject. But primary sources make you the expert! You are the one who has seen direct evidence and figured out what it means.

Examples of Primary Sources

Primary sources are direct, firsthand evidence or records of events, people, objects, or works of art. They are usually created by witnesses or first recorders of these events at about the time they occurred. Here are some examples:

Diaries and Letters: Personal diaries and letters often provide direct, firsthand account of events or experiences.

Photographs and Videos: Photos and videos can capture events or moments in time as they happened.

Speeches and Interviews: These can provide a firsthand perspective of the speaker's or interviewee's views or experiences.

Original Documents: This can include birth certificates, property deeds, and marriage licenses, which directly document an event.

Artifacts: Objects like tools, clothing, or other physical items from a specific period.

Scientific Research Reports: These are reports of findings from original experiments or studies.

Government Documents: These can include laws, court cases, treaties, census data, or other official records.

Newspaper Articles: Reports of events or issues as they occurred.

Each of these primary sources offers direct evidence or firsthand testimony of a historical or contemporary event or individual.

Types of Primary Sources

  • There are two key types of primary sources: historical and current. Within these types of primary sources, there are several different sources you could use.

Historical Primary Sources

Historical primary sources are sources used to learn about a historical event or experience. Historical primary sources come directly from the historical era you are studying. These can include any archival materials, historical objects, or texts that come from that era.

Look at the table below for some examples of historical primary sources:

Current Primary Sources

Current primary sources are sources you use to learn about modern-day subjects. Current primary sources help you learn about recent issues and events. These can include any digital, print, or physical objects that are directly tied to your subject.

Look at the table below for examples of current primary sources:

How to Use Primary Sources in a Synthesis Essay

In a synthesis essay, you use primary sources by summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting. Since you are blending multiple sources in a synthesis essay, it's important to blend these methods as well. Don't rely too much on summarizing, paraphrasing, or quoting. Good synthesizing uses a balanced blend of all three.

Read on for a closer look at each method of using primary sources in a synthesis essay.

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Summarizing Primary Sources

When you want to describe the main idea of a primary source, you can summarize it. When you summarize, you broadly explain the gist of a source. Summaries work best when you don't need any specific ideas or quotes from a source. This is particularly helpful when you are using a large amount of primary sources. Summarizing them can help you draw general conclusions from them.

The JK Museum of Telephony's AUTOVON exhibit demonstrates how the American military created a worldwide telephone system in the 1960s. The phones used in this system often had similar features, such as red direct call buttons and hardwired cords. 1

When summarizing, keep it brief. Focus only on the main point of the primary source you are using. Ask yourself: what matters about this source in general?

Paraphrasing Primary Sources

Sometimes a brief summary is not enough! For these moments, you can paraphrase . Paraphrasing is summarizing key points of a source. For example, you might describe an artifact or historical object in detail. Or you might explain two key ideas from an interview or news article.

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin tries to teach the reader how to be successful. He suggests rising earlier than everyone else, working until it's dark, and speaking your mind are the keys to success. 2

Quoting Primary Sources

Sometimes you need to use the direct words of a primary source. You might want to analyze those words or use them as an example of your argument. When you use the exact words of a source, it's called a direct quote. Direct quotes are useful for showing the reader exactly what was said in a source. This is helpful when you are analyzing handwritten sources or published texts.

In Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, Wollstonecraft alleviates the fears of her male readers that reading would keep women from their domestic duties: "No employment of the mind is a sufficient excuse for neglecting domestic duties, and I cannot conceive that they are incompatible. A woman may fit herself to be the companion and friend of a man of sense, and yet know how to take care of his family." 3

When using a direct quote, be sure to explain how it connects to your own ideas. You can't expect the reader to figure this out for themselves! Make it clear why you chose your quote and why it matters for your argument.

Primary Source - Key Takeaways

  • Primary Sources are first-hand accounts of a topic from people who had a direct connection with it.
  • There are two key differences between primary sources and secondary sources: a) where they come from and b) how you use them.
  • You can use historical primary sources to learn about a historical event or experience and current primary sources to learn about modern-day subjects.
  • In a synthesis essay, you use primary sources by summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting. Good writing uses a blend of all three.

1 JKL Museum of Telephony. "AUTOVON: Telephones and Equipment." 2014.

2 Benjamin Franklin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. 1791.

3 Mary Wollstonecraft. Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: With Reflections on Female Conduct, in the More Important Duties of Life. 1787.

Frequently Asked Questions about Primary Source

--> what is a primary source .

A primary source is a firsthand account of a topic from people who had direct connection with it.

--> What are examples of primary sources?

Some examples of primary sources are artifacts and objects, newspaper clippings, diaries, sheet music, audio recordings, datasets, and public records.

--> What are the basic primary source materials?

Basic primary source materials are the core source materials used in an essay. They are the primary sources you base your arguments upon. 

--> What are the types of primary sources?

The types of primary sources are historical primary sources and current primary sources. Historical primary sources are used to learn about historical subjects, while current primary sources are used to learn about modern-day subjects.

Final Primary Source Quiz

Primary source quiz - teste dein wissen.

What do primary sources provide evidence of? 

Show answer

Primary sources provide evidence of the people, events, or phenomena that are being researched.

Show question

What is the definition of primary sources ?

Primary Sources are first-hand accounts of a topic from people who had a direct connection with it. 

What are the two key differences between secondary and primary sources?

where they come from

What are secondary sources ? 

Secondary sources are sources that provide second-hand explanations or analyses of primary sources

A synthesis essay is a form of what type of source? 

secondary source

What does it mean to synthesize ?

If a source comes from the historical time period a researcher is studying, what type of source is it?

primary source

True or False:

Secondary sources can be used as primary sources.

True! If a researcher analyzes a secondary source to draw their own conclusions, they are using it as a primary source.

What are some of the purposes of primary sources?

They give access to the uknown

Finish this sentence: 

Historical primary sources are used to _____.

Historical primary sources are used to learn about a historical event or experience.

A researcher uses marriage records to identify how often young women got married in 19th century Massachusetts. 

What type of primary source is this an example of? 

historical primary source

What is ephemera ?

Ephemera  are sources created for only a short period of time. For example, postcards and ticket stubs are only created for short-term use. 

What are some examples of objects and artifacts that can be used as historical primary sources? 

What are current primary sources used to learn about? 

Current primary sources are used to learn about modern-day subjects.

A researcher analyzes the social media posts of young people to understand how they communicate about mental health in these spaces. 

current primary sources

What are some examples of data one can use as current primary sources?

government datasets

A researchers wants to convey the main idea of a primary source they are analyzing. How can they best do this? 

Paraphrasing summarizes what?

a key point or two from a source

When a researcher needs to share the exact words of a primary source, what is this called? 

direct quote

These are ticket stubs, postcards, stickers, etc.

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Primary Sources

Texts of laws and other original documents.

Newspaper reports, by reporters who witnessed an event or who quote people who did.

Speeches, diaries, letters and interviews - what the people involved said or wrote.

Original research.

Datasets, survey data, such as census or economic statistics.

Photographs, video, or audio that capture an event.

Secondary Sources


Secondary Sources are one step removed from primary sources, though they often quote or otherwise use primary sources. They can cover the same topic, but add a layer of interpretation and analysis. Secondary sources can include:

Most books about a topic.

Analysis or interpretation of data.

Scholarly or other articles about a topic, especially by people not directly involved.

Documentaries (though they often include photos or video portions that can be considered primary sources).

When is a Primary Source a Secondary Source?

Whether something is a primary or secondary source often depends upon the topic and its use.

A biology textbook would be considered a secondary source if in the field of biology, since it describes and interprets the science but makes no original contribution to it.

On the other hand, if the topic is science education and the history of textbooks, textbooks could be used a primary sources to look at how they have changed over time.

Examples of Primary and Secondary Sources

Adapted from Bowling Green State University, Library User Education, Primary vs. Secondary Sources .

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Primary Sources: Definition and Examples

Matt Ellis

Primary sources are documents, images, relics, or other works that provide firsthand details of a historical or scientific event. Primary sources in history are often created by people who witnessed, participated in, or were otherwise close to a particular event. Secondary sources, on the other hand, are made by people who were not directly involved. 

When writing a research paper , primary sources are ideal references, as long as you know how to handle them. In this guide, we give examples of primary sources and explain how to use them in academics, but first, let’s give a more detailed definition of primary sources.  Give your paper extra polish Grammarly helps you communicate clearly Write with Grammarly

What are primary sources?

Primary sources are any reference materials directly related to a historical event, such as an eyewitness account, a photograph or video of the incident, or a physical artifact. In research, primary sources make excellent references because they’re the next best thing to actually being there yourself.

By contrast, secondary sources are any reference materials that are not directly related to the event. Secondary sources often analyze and interpret primary sources to get a better understanding of the topic. For example, the court records of the Salem witch trials would be a primary source, whereas a book about how the Salem witch trials affected New England culture would be a secondary source. 

Both primary and secondary sources are important for research, but primary sources tend to be more reliable because of their direct connection. At the same time, primary sources are usually harder to find (because there are fewer of them), so secondary sources help fill in the gaps and sometimes provide new information through deduction and context. 

Primary source examples 

So what are primary sources exactly? Here’s a quick list of some common types of primary sources: 

  • Photograph and video records
  • Archaeological artifacts
  • Data from scientific studies
  • Artworks (paintings, poems, sculptures, etc.)
  • Live recordings of speeches, music, and other performances
  • Correspondence letters
  • Diaries, memoirs, and autobiographies
  • Legal documents (birth certificates, contracts, etc.)
  • Journalistic articles from the time of an event (newspapers, magazines, etc.)
  • Text of law codes
  • Emails and text messages
  • Original maps
  • Social media posts

How to find a primary source

Finding primary sources can be a challenge since they’re not as common as other sources. Ironically, one of the best places to find primary sources is secondary sources. 

Secondary sources should list their references and source materials, if not in the actual text then in footnote citations or the bibliography . Often, you’ll be able to track down these primary sources in a library or online database. 

If you haven’t begun your research yet, journalistic articles are a good place to start. Newspaper and magazine articles written around the time of the incident count as primary sources if they have direct accounts of the event; if not, the article might still mention other primary sources. 

There are also online resources where you can view primary sources. Here are some of the most common: 

  • Internet Archive
  • National archives (e.g., US National Archives , UK National Archives )
  • Google Scholar
  • Google Patents

If you’re looking for the original hard copy of a source, such as artwork or artifacts, head to the museum! If you can’t reach the museum—perhaps it’s in another country—check its website, which usually has photographs of its popular exhibits. 

How to evaluate a primary source

You always want to make sure your primary source is actually a firsthand account, not just posturing as one. People with a hidden agenda may pretend to be primary sources, so it’s best to evaluate a source’s authenticity whenever you can. 

With official documents, you can verify the credentials yourself, and with published works, you can look into the authenticity of the publisher. But sometimes it’s difficult to evaluate a source’s credibility even with apparent verification. If you’re having trouble identifying a primary source, try asking yourself these questions: 

  • Who is the author or creator? Are they using their own experience as a reference, or someone else’s?
  • Where did the source come from? Is it a scan, reprint, translation, or transcription? If so, how did they access the original?
  • When was the source created? Does the time frame match the event you’re researching?
  • Is the creator biased? Are they presenting the facts, or promoting their own ideology? Are they capitalizing on their experience for fame or money? 
  • What questions does this source answer? What questions does this source ignore or leave unanswered?
  • Why was the source created? What was its purpose? For whom was it created?
  • What is the historical context of the source? Does it fit with other sources from the same period? 

Evaluating a source can take some detective work, so pay attention to the details. For example, if you’re using an online source, the URL can be helpful: Only official sites use . gov or . edu , whereas virtually anyone can create a . com , . org , or . net . 

Don’t be afraid to research the source of the source. Check a website’s “About” page or an organization’s contact information to see if they’re legitimate. Do some research on the creator to see if they’re qualified. Pay attention to small discrepancies, such as citing different dates or spellings than other sources. Remember: Not all that glitters is gold!

How to use a primary source

If you want to use a primary source in academic writing , you have to follow certain protocols to be taken seriously. Above all, you need to properly cite both primary and secondary sources. It’s not enough to give credit to these sources in your writing; you have to credit them in a precise way that depends on which style guide you’re using. 

The three most accepted style guides for academics are MLA , APA , and Chicago . Each one uses its own format for source citations , both in the bibliography and within the text, and these vary depending on the type of source, such as a book , image , or film . Often, the style guide is predetermined by the assignment or the organization you’re writing for. 

Primary sources FAQs

What is a primary source.

A primary source is any reference material that presents a firsthand account of an event, such as from an eyewitness or someone directly involved. Official papers, such as legal documents, are also considered primary sources. 

What are some examples of primary sources?

Primary sources are photographs, videos, artifacts, data from scientific studies, letters, diaries, autobiographies, legal documents, some journalistic articles, emails, social media posts, and other firsthand accounts. 

Where can you find primary sources?

Primary sources are typically found in libraries, museums, and official online resources, such as national archives. 

How do you use primary sources?

It’s important to properly credit a primary source using the citation guidelines from the style guide you’re using, such as MLA , APA , or Chicago .

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Primary sources are created by individuals who participated in or witnessed an event and recorded that event during or immediately after the event.


A student activist during the war writing about protest activities has created a memoir. This would be a primary source because the information is based on her own involvement in the events she describes. Similarly, an antiwar speech is a primary source. So is the arrest record of student protesters. A newspaper editorial or article, reporting on a student demonstration is also a primary source.

Deeds, wills, court documents, military records, tax records, census records, diaries, journals, letters, account books, advertisements, newspapers, photographs, and maps are primary sources.

Secondary sources are created by someone who was either not present when the event occurred or removed from it in time. We use secondary sources for overview information, and to help familiarize ourselves with a topic and compare that topic with other events in history.

History books, encyclopedias, historical dictionaries, and academic articles are secondary sources.

If you've never written a research paper using primary sources, it is important to understand that the process is different from using only secondary sources. Many students discover that finding and gaining access to primary source documents can be difficult. The Library website has a valuable guide to locating primary source documents. Follow the link below to be redirected to that guide:

  • Students are encouraged to seek help from the Special Collections Librarian or Research Librarians to aid in their research projects. Librarians will be able to aid students in a variety of ways including helping to locate primary source materials.

After locating appropriate primary sources, it is necessary for students to analyze and interpret them. To many students, this task can seem arduous, if not overwhelming. There are many resources available in the library as well as online, which are helpful. The National Archives website has very useful analysis worksheets that can help students to determine the significance of primary source documents. Links to PDF files of these worksheets are listed below:

Written Document | Artifact | Cartoon | Map | Motion Picture | Photograph | Poster | Sound Recording

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Primary Sources Essays

Primary sources for social studies.

Primary sources have become a popular topic of discussion and interest among social studies teachers and students. Teachers have seen the positive impact they can have on the curriculum and the students. As for students, they have seen history come alive through primary sources. Additionally, these sources have become easier and easier to find as the Internet resources continue to grow. According to Yale (2008) a primary source is an item or document that can “provide first-hand testimony or direct

Birmingham Jail Primary Sources

A primary source is a piece written at the time of the event; in addition, they’re written by someone who witnessed or experienced the event. For example, In Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” he states, “16 April 1963…While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities "unwise and untimely." This would be an example of a primary document since Dr. King wrote it during the civil rights movement. While, secondary sources are not

Primary Sources

A great way to make social studies more fascinating to students is through the use of primary sources. Primary sources are objects that have some type of reference to history that may include journals, documents, artifacts, jewelry, pictures, clothing, along with much more. These objects are one of the best ways to enhance social studies instruction in the classroom. Primary sources are a great tool to get students intrigued with the curriculum topic that is being covered in class along with being

Primary sources can be very substantial when doing research on something that has happened in history. Either it be something significant or not, there is so much that a person can learn by looking at primary sources. In class, we looked at many different types of sources that came from a variety of people throughout history. Some primary sources we looked at in class include, pictures, letters, speeches, and some other items that belonged to people years ago. Primary sources contribute so much to

The Use of Primary Sources in Teaching

Primary sources are materials that come directly from the person or event of record. Such sources could include journals, documents, letter, diaries, memoirs or artifacts. Teaching is made easier with primary sources because students are able to relate to the topic through original visual and audio cues. Primary sources are used to teach virtually any subject from history to science, and even mathematics. It is simple to find and use primary sources online. Many universities, museums and government

Primary Source Analysis of Queen Elizabeth I

This essay aims to analyse two historical primary sources in relation to Queen Elizabeth I, also known as the ‘Virgin Queen’; the essay will attempt to use the source in order to understand what it is able to reveal about the past and her influence during her reign. The first source to be analysed consists of a portrait of the Queen in her late sixties produced, apparently, by the French born artist Isaac Oliver in the sixteen hundreds. In his portrait of the queen the artists, despite her age, presents

Benito Mussolini Primary Sources

Evaluation of Sources Source D Source D is an extract from an online encyclopedia that gives information about how Italy operated under Mussolini. The entire text is in the Appendix. Origins: Source D is a secondary source from an online encyclopedia. The encyclopedia focuses on the rise of Benito Mussolini and how Italy functioned under Benito Mussolini. Value: Source D is about how Mussolini was able to control information and media from the people of Italy. Source D clearly illustrates that

Primary Secondary Sources

Primary source documents serve as an original source of information about the topic. They provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. Primary sources include published results of research studies, scientific experiments, clinical trials, and proceedings of conferences and meetings. Secondary sources are works of synthesis and interpretation based upon primary sources and the works of their authors. They usually are not evidence, but rather commentary or

Primary And Secondary Sources Essay

There are ways you can tell the difference between a primary and secondary source. A primary source is an eyewitness account during the time in which it was written. Some examples of primary sources are Night by Elie Wiesel and The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Primary sources can also include speeches, footage and interviews. A secondary source is a document or record of an event that interprets and analyzes the event after it has past in history. An example is the Decameron written

Charlemagne's Primary Sources

A primary source is a first-hand source of information that was recorded or created during that specific time. It can take many different forms, a document, artifact, video or recording, dairy and so on. It represents an original source about a certain topic. It is a source created by someone who was there at the time recording directly from the topic of discussion. For example, one primary source that we used in class this year was the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor. For this encounter

Primary Source Materials

7. RESEARCH PROCESS INTRODUCTION A primary source provides direct or first-hand evidence about an event, object, person, or work of art. Primary sources provide the original materials on which other research is based and enable students and other researchers to get as close as possible to what actually happened during a particular event or time period. Published materials can be viewed as primary resources if they come from the time period that is being discussed, and were written or produced

Revolutionary War Primary Sources

criteria given for writing college-level papers. There are three different types of sources first is a primary source. A primary source is evidence of a period and place that was studied that was produced by eyewitnesses to or participants in the historical moment being taught or talked about. original; not derived but rather a firsthand account, original data, etc., or based on direct knowledge,A secondary source are interpretations often generated by someone that was not there but heard it from

The Difference Between Primary and Secondary Sources of Data

Between Primary and Secondary Sources of Data Primary data is data, which is collected by the researcher themselves. This kind of data is new, original research information. Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened and is hands on. A primary source reflects the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer. Primary sources are first-hand information from a person who witnessed or participated in an event. Examples of primary data are:

Christopher Columbus Primary Sources

The history based on primary source and secondary source, and the history has to have both primary source and secondary source because it has real facts and analyzes. Examples of Primary Sources are speeches, news, photographs..,etc., and examples of secondary sources interpreted topics. This article is primary source essay, and Primary sources are original documents. Primary sources for this article are Christopher Columbus’s Letter,1493 and Fray Bernardino de Sahagun Relates an Aztec Chronicler’s

Primary Sources In Northern Ireland

Primary sources used by historians The photographs used in the book, between the pages of 140 and 141. They show pictures of the Shankill butchers gang members, the gang leader or as he was referred to “Mr Butcher” Lenny Murphy and The Windsor bar. This was the meeting place for Murphy’s rivals in the United Volunteer Force (UVF). It is where they planned their murders and where often enough there were also executed. How are these primary sources used? Portrays the hardships faced by the people

What Is The Primary Source Of The Laws Of Manu

The primary source (The Laws of Manu) and the secondary source (the documentary), have many key differences. Three key differences between the primary source and the secondary: the intended audience for each source, the purpose of each source, and what is covered in each source. The documentary, Legacy- The Origins of Civilization- India, the Empire of Spirit first aired in 1991 and is narrated by English historian Michael Wood. The documentary, examined the origins of Indian civilization along with

Nikola Tesla Primary Source Essay

My Primary source is The inventions, researches, and writings of Nikola Tesla. I have been doing a lot of research in the primary source because I want to understand what this genius was thinking before making his inventions and what he thought after he was a recognized as a famous inventor. I knew about Tesla‘s inventions and how did they affect in the present . Before starting my research I did not know him that deep but now I can try to understand what he was thinking at that moment. Now doing

Niagara By Louis Hennepin: Primary Source Analysis

Primary Source Analysis In Louis Hennepin’s “A Description of the Fall of the River Niagara, that is to be seen betwixt the Lake Ontario and that of Erie,” and his “The Author sets out from Fort Frontenac, and passes over the rapid Stream, which is call'd The Long Fall. He is kindly receiv'd at Montreal by Count Frontenac,” Hennepin offers the reader a late 17th-century description of the Niagara River and Falls, as well as the river systems leading to Montreal. Similarly, in “A Letter from

Primary Source Evaluation

Title of Primary Source: ACCOUNT OF THE SLAVE TRADE ON THE COAST OF AFRICA by ALEXANDER FALCONBRIDGE The book was published in 1788 -- substantially after the events described took place. The time gap did not seriously affect the main content of the material because the events he describes were very serious and unforgettable ones. He wrote the material at the time he had already been a member of the Anti- Slavery Society leaving room for a little suspicion of his tendency to exaggerate some descriptions

Gallipoli Primary Sources

in contemporary primary sources. However on the other side the film also does share some similarities to those of primary sources. Events from the film such as, the landing at Anzac Cove, life at Gallipoli and the Battle of the Nek distinctly outline that the film portrays the battles and experiences of Gallipoli in a different way compared to those of contemporary primary sources. Firstly the landing at Anzac Cove in Turkey in the movie remarkably differs from what primary sources state. Towards

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All students taking Part II HPS must write one primary source essay, as a piece of submitted coursework. These sources are supported by seminars (running in weeks 1–4 of Michaelmas Term) and supervisions. To ensure equity and quality in primary source choices, there is a limit of eight students per primary source . If a source is oversubscribed, places will be allocated through a random procedure.

In weeks 1–2 of Michaelmas Term, you should attend seminars for four of the primary sources on offer. On the Wednesday of week 2, you will have to submit a list of the three primary sources, in rank order of preference, which you hope to write on. We will then ensure that students are allocated places as fairly as possible.

The essay counts for 20% of the overall mark – the same as one exam paper.

The examiners expect the primary source essay to display close engagement with the source. They recognise that a wide range of different approaches to any primary source is appropriate. Different approaches may include (among others) historical contexualisation of the source; a comparative study of the source; questions concerning the reception of the source; an approach addressing a single passage from a source in great depth; the literary and rhetorical analysis of a source; and a close philosophical analysis of the argument in the source.

Students can expect to receive three supervisions for the essay. The seminar leaders will explain how to arrange supervisions.

Format and submission

The essay should have numbered pages, footnotes and a bibliography. It should be no more than 5,000 words in length, including footnotes but excluding the bibliography.


You should upload the essay to the 'HPS Part II Coursework' site on Moodle before 12noon on the day of the deadline. Paper copies are not required.

Please note:

  • You cannot upload more than one file.
  • The following file formats are accepted: DOC, DOCX, PDF, RTF.
  • The essay will be marked anonymously, so it is important that your name does not appear anywhere on it.

Please note that the Department will retain a copy of your essay and may make it available to future students unless you make a written request to the contrary to the Departmental Administrator.

The University and the Department of History and Philosophy of Science take plagiarism very seriously. Please read our advice about what plagiarism is and how to avoid it.

Plagiarism guidelines

The Department uses the text-matching software Turnitin UK to blanket screen all student work submitted in Moodle.

Use of Turnitin UK

Request to add an appendix

An essay should be self-contained, including or citing all information needed for an examiner to follow its argument.

The word limit normally includes text and footnotes but not the bibliography. However, in certain cases permission may be obtained for materials strictly relevant to the argument of the essay to be appended for the information of the examiners, with such materials not contributing to the word count. Materials falling into this category may include primary source materials that are not readily accessible, translations, questionnaire responses, statistical tables, descriptions of objects and analytical bibliographies and formal proofs.

Normally material included in the word count should mainly consist of the student's own discussion and analysis. Exceptionally, when a critical edition or translation, an analytical bibliography, or a technical description of objects and their provenances is based on substantial original scholarship and is central to the argument of an essay, permission may be obtained for its inclusion within the body of the essay, hence contributing to the word count. Normally no more than one third of an essay should consist of such material.

Applications for such permissions should normally be sought, in consultation with the supervisor, from the HPS Board prior to submission of the essay.

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  1. What Is Considered a Primary Source?

    Generally, primary sources are considered as documents or footage that was created during the time of an event. If no primary sources are available, other sources can be considered primary for this purpose.

  2. What Is the Difference Between a Primary and Secondary Source?

    A primary source refers to documentation or material presented by parties that were directly present or involved in the referred subject, while a secondary source refers to documentation derived from the opinion or views of primary sources.

  3. Facts About Primary and Secondary Data

    A primary source is a first-hand assessment of a topic or event, while a secondary source is an interpretation of the primary data. Secondary information often quotes primary data and adds a fresh interpretation.

  4. Primary source essay

    Get behind the source to understand its conditions of production. Who was the author? Who was the intended audience? Why, when, how, and where

  5. Primary and Secondary Sources: Understanding the Difference

    What Are Some Examples of Primary Sources? · Historical speeches and documents · Autobiographies and memoirs · Court records and legal documents

  6. A Brief Guide to Analyzing and Writing about Primary Sources

    The essays, articles, and books historians write about past historical events are called secondary sources since historian are often not eyewitnesses or.

  7. Primary and Secondary Sources

    In general, primary sources are original works (original historical documents, art works, interviews, etc.), while secondary sources contain others' insights

  8. Primary Sources in Synthesis Essays & Evidence-Based Examples

    Examples of Primary Sources · Diaries and Letters: Personal diaries and letters often provide direct, firsthand account of events or experiences. · Photographs

  9. Primary vs. Secondary

    Primary Sources are immediate, first-hand accounts of a topic, from people who had a direct connection with it. Primary sources can include:.

  10. Primary Sources: Definition and Examples

    Primary sources are documents, images, relics, or other works that provide firsthand details of a historical or scientific event.

  11. I have to write a research paper using primary sources. Where do I

    Primary sources are created by individuals who participated in or witnessed an event and recorded that event during or immediately after the

  12. Primary Sources Essays

    Free Essays from 123 Help Me | Primary sources have become a popular topic of discussion and interest among social studies teachers and students. Teachers.

  13. Primary sources

    All students taking Part II HPS must write one primary source essay, as a piece of submitted coursework. These sources are supported by seminars (running in

  14. Primary Sources

    Primary sources are sources that were created or written during the time period in which they reference and can include things like diaries, letters, films