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History 303 - Finding Primary Sources in Archives

Help with archival research for HIST303

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:

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

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 C’s 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?


Primary sources were either created during the time period being studied or were created at a later date by a participant in the events being studied (such as a memoir or oral history). They reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer. Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period.

secondary source is a work that interprets or analyzes an historical event or phenomenon. It is generally at least one step removed from the event and is often based on primary sources. Examples include scholarly or popular books and articles, reference books, and textbooks.

To find secondary sources in book form, search the library catalog PolyCat. To find secondary source articles, search an article database