Primary sources: What are they?

Some definitions

The definition of a primary source varies depending upon the academic discipline and the context in which it is used.

  • In the humanities, a primary source could be defined as something that was created either during the time period being studied or afterward by individuals reflecting on their involvement in the events of that time.
  • In the social sciences, the definition of a primary source would be expanded to include numerical data that has been gathered to analyze relationships between people, events, and their environment.
  • In the natural sciences, a primary source could be defined as a report of original findings or ideas. These sources often appear in the form of research articles with sections on methods and results.

Primary sources in context

The nature of a source is determined by the way a researcher makes use of it. The same item might be considered a primary source in one investigation and a secondary source in another. For example, a speech about the Declaration of Independence that was delivered by a noted statesman on its hundredth anniversary would be secondary source for a scholar studying the document's philosophical origins. But, it would be a primary source for a scholar studying how the Declaration's meaning has changed for Americans over time.

The value of a source is also determined by its use. A memoir written by a signer of the Declaration of Independence years after the event would be of much more importance to a historian studying the debates of the Continental Congress than would the diary entry of an individual who lived in Philadelphia in 1776, but had no personal interaction with the Congress or its members.

Examples by discipline

The sources available to you in your undergraduate research could often be more accurately described as primary source surrogates. For example, instead of examining an individual's diary directly, you may find yourself using reproduced images of its pages—or, more likely yet, a typed transcription of its contents. Or, instead of experiencing a sculpture firsthand, you may be dependent upon photographs of it. Obviously, some primary source surrogates are better than others.

If you are unsure of what would be considered a primary source for your particular project, ask your professor for examples. The following is an incomplete list of things that might be considered primary sources by different academic disciplines.

  • Anthropology
    artifact, field notes, fossil, photograph
  • Art
    architectural model or drawing, building or structure, letter, motion picture, organizational records, painting, personal account, photograph, print, sculpture, sketch book
  • Biology
    field notes, plant specimen, research report
  • Economics
    company statistics, consumer survey, data series
  • Engineering
    building or structure, map, geological survey, patent, schematic drawing, technical report
  • Government
    government report, interview, letter, news report, personal account, press release, public opinion survey, speech, treaty or international agreement
  • History
    artifact, diary, government report, interview, letter, map, news report, oral history, organizational records, photograph, speech, work of art
  • Law
    code, statute, court opinion, legislative report
  • Literature
    contemporary review, interview, letter, manuscript, personal account, published work
  • Music
    contemporary review, letter, personal account, score, sound recording
  • Psychology
    case study, clinical case report, experimental replication, follow-up study, longitudinal study, treatment outcome study
  • Sociology
    cultural artifact, interview, oral history, organizational records, statistical data, survey

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