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Special Collections and Archives

Tips and tools for researching primary sources in Special Collections and Archives and online

What Is a Primary Source?

Primary resources are records that provide first-hand testimony or evidence of an event, action, topic, or time period.  Primary resources are usually created by individuals that directly experience an event or topic, and record their experience through photographs, videos, memoirs, correspondence, oral histories, autobiographies, or official organizational records.  

Varieties of Primary Sources:

  • Vital Records (birth and death certificates, marriage records)
  • Newspapers
  • Maps
  • Architectural records
  • Oral histories
  • Photographs
  • Video and audio recordings
  • religious records (e.g. baptismal, administrative, etc.)
  • Government records (reports, minutes, etc.)
  • Court records (civil, criminal, and probate)
  • City directories
  • Military service records
  • Memoirs/Journals/Travelogues
  • audio and video recordings
  • Emails
  • Websites
  • and the list goes on!

What Is a Secondary Source?

Secondary sources are usually published books or articles by authors who were not eyewitnesses or participants in the historical event or period and who base their interprestation on primary sources, research, and study.

Libraries specialize in providing access to secondary sources, while archives focus on providing access to primary sources.

Analyzing Primary Sources

The 6 Cs of Historical Analysis

  1. Content - Describe the primary source in detail.
  2. Creation - Who created this?  When? Why?
  3. Communication  - What is author trying to communicate to the viewer/reader? Do they have a particular perspective or bias? Who is their potential audience?  
  4. Context - What is going on in the world, country, region, or locality at the time when this was created?
  5. Connections - What links can you make between the primary source and your own knowledge of the time period and subject matter?
  6. Conclusions - How does this primary source contribute to our understanding of history or literature?