Primary Sources

Primary sources are those that were produced or recorded in the era which you are researching. These generally include: diaries or personal journals, letters or telegrams, books or autobiographies written by contemporary figures (people who lived in that era), court transcripts or police records, newspaper or magazine articles, government documents such as law codes or transcripts of parliamentary proceedings, recorded speeches, interviews or their transcripts, laboratory notes, ships’ logs, inscriptions, photographs, etc. Other, less conventional primary sources can include: folk tales, oral histories or legends, works of art, song lyrics, etc. The university’s library has a wide variety of primary source material for your consideration, and much of it, including copies of newspapers and magazines dating back to the 18th century, is available on microfilm and microfiche. Do not let unfamiliarity with the library’s microfilm- and microfiche reading machines get in your way! Periodicals on film are often invaluable sources of information about the past, and the library’s staff will be pleased to help you examine the extensive collection of reels in the university’s holdings. Examining older periodicals can be very enjoyable, and if you find a valuable article, it can even be photocopied by the film-reading machine for your convenience. Be sure to note all of the publication information, such as date, issue, volume, etc, before returning the reel.

Primary sources are historians’ windows on the past, enabling them to discover what people were doing, planning, or discussing at a particular time. By examining such sources in a larger context, such as an historical investigation into a particular event or societal trend, they can provide valuable clues. Of course, while a private diary might reveal a hidden opinion or unknown event, an autobiography might also attempt to alter the historical record in the author’s interest. The researcher must be careful when approaching sources written by those figures who were close to the events they are describing. Their memories may be fuzzy, and they might even exaggerate or deemphasize particular details. Consider this, if you were writing an autobiography of your own life, would you describe in detail all of your most embarrassing moments or faults? Well, the tendency for major figures from the past, such as revolutionary leaders or politicians, to gloss over their less successful ventures when writing about their own lives may be even greater. Similarly, they might choose to portray their contemporary rivals in a less than flattering light. Be aware of an author’s possible interests in discussing or avoiding certain subjects. Sometimes the authors of primary sources were professional historians, but more often they were not.

Government documents are an example of primary sources that may provide highly specific information such as legislative text or statistical figures, but may not provide a very broad overall context. It is therefore up to the researcher to determine the relevancy or the validity of the details they provide. Considering the nature of the era in which the documents were produced, and the audience for whom they were written, can help to evaluate their usefulness. Similarly, newspaper reports and articles are often greatly influenced by the political atmosphere in which they are written. The information, and especially the analyses that they provide must be weighed carefully with less editorial or opinionated sources. Unlike historians, journalists generally produce reports about current events, and do not have the benefit of hindsight to help them draw their conclusions about the present. Thirty years after a story appears in the newspaper, new information will often have come to light, and the article’s contemporary assumptions may appear incorrect – or even ridiculous. It is important to remember that earlier authors may not have had access to as many sources – or as many sides of the story, as yourself.

Another type of primary source is the novel, which is often mistakenly dismissed by students because “it's fiction -- it's not about anything that really happened.” Novels, like political tracts, can also engage in contemporary debates. The novel can tell us about its author's concerns and assumptions, and the kinds of issues that preoccupied writers in a particular era. Of course, we must also beware not to believe that everything the novel says is “true,” and we must not forget that the author has made specific decisions about how to portray the characters. Therefore, we must be careful not to confuse what the novel’s narrator or characters say with what the author was actually thinking. The author may have chosen to create characters with radically different opinions than him or herself.