Thinking about primary sources
A few things to keep in mind when looking for and working with primary sources:
Context - In what context was the creator of this source working? What might have influenced them?
- For example, if you've found a newspaper article, what was on the cover of the newspaper that day? What were the advertisements about?
Audience - Who was the intended audience for this source?
Format - Consider how the format in which you've found the document might impact your analysis. (Often, sources found online will be scanned and/or transcribed.)
- A scanned image illustrates what the original document looked like (potentially including handwriting, marginalia, etc.).
- When a source is transcribed (whether by hand, or by an automatic process called OCR), you'll see the text, but not the layout, design, or other visual information.
What is a Primary Source? (examples)
Primary sources are firsthand accounts of events or conditions during a particular period, often recorded contemporaneously by participants or observers.
Primary sources are written in the language of the time, not necessarily the language we use now. Choose your search terms wisely, or else you might miss out on the perfect source.
- Diaries and journals
- Letters (correspondence)
- Speeches and sermons
- Notes (and other written materials describing experienced or observed events)
- Autobiographies and memoirs describing experienced or observed events (in hindsight)
- Newspaper articles
- Photographs, films, videos
- News broadcasts and transcripts
- Audio recordings documenting contemporary events
- Music, television shows, advertisements
- Art objects
- Buildings, monuments, etc.
- Public opinion polls, television shows, movies, music, best-sellers, advertisements - anything that provides a cultural, psychological, or sociological snapshot of a certain time period