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Primary Sources

What are primary sources?

This is a selective guide to finding primary source materials for historical research. The Parkside Library maintains rich collections of primary sources in print, microform, and electronic formats. Additionally, there are hundreds of collections of primary source materials freely available online. Because there is no single comprehensive database of primary sources, you may need to explore different strategies for locating resources of interest.

What are primary sources? They are often referred to as "first hand" accounts or "original" records. They are the evidence historians use to build interpretations of the past. Most primary sources are created at the time an historical event occurred, while others, such as autobiographies, are produced long after the events they describe. Among the many types of materials that may be primary sources ar: letters, diaries, speeches, newspaper articles, autobiographies, oral histories, government and organizational records, statistical data, maps, photographs, motion pictures, sound recordings, advertisements, and artifacts.

Examples of Primary Sources

Newspaper Articles

Newspaper articles can be considered a primary source when written by reporters who witnessed an event or who quote people who did. They are considered a secondary source if the report is an analysis of a previous event.


Letters are first-hand written records of events and communication between people, so they count as primary sources.Not only can letters tell us about the writer’s opinions and personality, they can also tell us more about the world the author was living in.


Photographs are a very common type of primary source. They can serve to document:

  • events or relationships in a person’s life
  • the history of an organization, institution, municipality, country, or social group
  • socially significant events


Ephemera are generally things that are printed for a specific occasion or purpose and aren’t meant to last after their original use. Examples are: theatre programs, posters for events, ticket stubs, political leaflets, and bumper stickers.

Even though they were originally produced to have a short life span, ephemera that are preserved in archives are still very valuable for learning about the past, because they can provide information about planned cultural and political events.

Institutional Records

Every organization produces records in the course of its everyday operations, and these serve to document the activities, transactions, and functions of the organization. A few examples of the many types of organizational records are: financial records, reports, meeting minutes, emails, memos, publicity materials, and internal publications like newsletters.


Maps are symbolic representations of a part of the earth’s surface. They can reveal how places – a college campus, a city, a street – changed over time. They often reflect changing political realities and understandings, as well as advancing degrees of knowledge about the spaces represented. Like all types of primary sources, maps are social documents: they are created in a particular social and cultural context, and they contain certain details, leave others out, and represent relative sizes and other features of geographic areas and social spaces with a lesser or greater degree of accuracy

Vital Records

In general, vital records are those records that are absolutely essential for an organization to continue functioning, and they are defined differently by each individual organization.

Birth certificates, death certificates, and marriage licenses are considered vital records for society, and they are maintained for a very long time in public institutions and used for genealogical research (research into family histories) as well as other research projects.

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