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About Primary Sources

egl 333
Students in EGL/HUI 333 study papers and artifacts from the Pietro di Donato Collection, Spring 2019.

Primary sources are research materials that bring history to life. They document history as it happened or close in time. The variety of primary source content and formats is diverse. When you text, tweet, send an e-mail, or take a selfie, you are creating a primary source! From diaries to photographs to real-time blog posts, these sources can be historically compelling, as they provide tangible evidence of people, places, and events.

A primary source is an artifact, document, diary, manuscript, autobiography, recording, or any other source of information that was created at the time under study. As you begin to examine primary sources, there are essential questions that you should consider. Not all questions work with all primary sources, and you may discover other questions as you go along. Keep in mind that no research project relies on just one single document or source.

Primary sources are firsthand accounts and evidence of people, places, and events. They exist in a variety of formats in all disciplines. Examples range from traditional print and written texts (autobiographical books, diaries), to non-written works (art, music, and recorded interviews), to social media (real-time Instagram posts and tweets!).

Secondary sources are interpretative works or analyses produced through researching, consulting, and studying primary sources. Examples include books and articles written from a historical perspective (later in time), reviews, textbooks, biographies, and indexes.

Tertiary sources are summaries of topics and subjects compiled from a variety primary and secondary sources. Examples include timelines, chronologies, bibliographies, directories, handbooks, and encyclopedia entries, such as Wikipedia.