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Lesson 1: Primary Sources Defined with Examples

Photograph of Senator Jacob K. Javits at the "March on Washington," August 28, 1963.
Senator Jacob K. Javits Collection, Special Collections, SBU Libraries.

1.1 What are Primary Sources?
1.2 What are Secondary and Tertiary Sources?
1.3 Genres, Types, and Formats of Primary Sources
1.4 Nature of Primary Sources

1.1 What are Primary Sources?

A primary source is an artifact, document, diary, manuscript, autobiography, recording, or any other source of information in any format that was created at the time under study or in close proximity to it.

They are unmediated or uninterpreted first hand sources or materials in any format that provide documentary evidence of people, places, and events.

Diversity of Primary Sources
There is a diverse range of genres, content, and formats in which primary sources are represented.

For example, an 18th century memoir in original book format and an Instagram post uploaded a minute ago in digital format are both primary sources. 

Artifacts and specimens, or items found near primary sources such as tools, specimens and plant-based materials also fall within the scope of primary source evidence. 

More examples: textual or written works such as letters and manuscripts; books written at the time under study; interviews and concert performances; digital satellite maps; nontextual works (paintings, photographs); fossils; jewelry; and social media communications.

Example 1: Below is a section of a map hand-drawn by Stony Brook graduate Larry Auerbach in 1978. The entire map of the SBU campus is available to consult in Special Collections and University Archives at SBU. Some questions to consider when examining and researching this primary source might include:

  • Why might have this map been drawn?
  • What does it depict?
  • How was it made?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • What was the artist's point of view and tone? 


Auerbach, Larry. Section from The State University of New York at Stony Brook…: A Vision from the Clouds, 1978. 
University Archives, SBU Libraries.

Example 2: Below is the cover of The Red Cross Cookery Book. It is thought to be published in Hong Kong and was printed by South China Morning Post in 1919. The book is available to consult in Special Collections and University Archives at SBU. Questions to consider when examining and researching this primary sources could include:

  • Why was it made?
  • What world and socio-economic events influenced its production?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • What does the illustration depict and convey?
  • What type of information does it contain? 
  • How many copies exist in libraries? What factors might account for this number?

red cross

League of Red Cross Societies. The Red Cross Cookery Book. [Hong Kong]: Printed by South China Morning Post, 1919. 
Jacqueline M. Newman Chinese Cookbook Collections, Special Collections, SBU Libraries.

Considerations for Assessing Primary Sources

The process of evaluating primary sources is multi-dimensional. It includes assessing physical characteristics (materiality), considering the creator's intent, determining the intended audience, and factoring in potential biases. 

It is also important to evaluate the "provenance" of primary sources. Provenance is a term frequently used in historical research and in archival repositories to refer to the origin or source of something. Custodial history and ownership of an item or collection can provide insights into the perspective of the creator and the circumstances under which a source may have been created.

1.2 What are Secondary and Tertiary Sources?

Secondary and tertiary sources can support your arguments, findings, and points of view about primary sources. 

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

              gelber      finkmadness      teplitsky

Left to right:

1) Gelber, Sidney. Politics and Public Higher Education in New York State: Stony Brook-a Case History. New York, NY: Peter Lang, 2001. 
2) Shorter, Edward, and Max Fink.  The Madness of Fear: A History of Catatonia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
3) Teplitsky, Joshua. Prince of the Press: How One Collector Built History's Most Enduring and Remarkable Jewish Library . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019.

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

sbu wiki
Section of the Wikipedia entry for Stony Brook University. Retrieved August 17, 2019.

1.3 Genres, Types, and Formats of Primary Sources

Primary sources are diverse and exist in nearly all formats. They are found in many genres (e.g., fiction, interview), mediums (physical representation; how they are made) and formats (how they are accessible). 

Preservation of Primary Sources
Over time, the condition of primary sources can become compromised due to age, environmental conditions, and technological obsolescence.
For example, books can become brittle and dry, while equipment and formats used for sound recordings may eventually become out-of-date and unsustainable. 

To preserve sources, they may be migrated to newer formats which can increase access and reduce handling of the original materials.

Each example below is a primary source; the only difference is the way you access them. 

Example 1: an autobiography in hardcopy book format (analog: print or paper) and the digital version of the exact same work in e-book format (digital: pdf). 

Example 2: a vinyl album (analog) of a live Beatles' performance and the digital file of the same performance downloaded from iTunes.

Conservation or restoration processes can improve the physical condition of archival materials and books, and consequently extend longevity and improve access, as with papers from the Eversley Childs Collection (below).

childs conservation
Instagram post by Special Collections, SBU Libraries' announcing conservation of brittle papers from the Eversley Childs Collection. June 12, 2018.


To illustrate the diversity of primary sources, review the list below. 

Archives: this word has multiple meanings; it can refer to a physical place or virtual space where archival materials are maintained and stored, or a collection of materials produced by a person or organization.
Examples of archival collections include:

Artifacts, Objects, and Biofacts: tangible items of cultural or historical significance and interest.
Examples include tools, vases, and jewelry. Biofacts are natural organic materials such as bones, charcoal, and plant materials.

Woodstock pin from the Nettie Feinberg Collection
Pinback button from the Woodstock music festival held August 15-18, 1969.
Dove and guitar illustration with the phrase "Peace & Music." Part of the Nettie Feinberg Collection.

Artworks : visually express ideas, feelings, and sentiments, and can document events in the form of photographs, drawings, paintings, and sculptures. Examples:

September 11 Memorial Arch donated by the Stony Brook Alumni Association.
Designed by designer-illustrator Milton Glaser in collaboration with fabricator Nicholas Fasciano.
Twelve-feet high and eight feet wide, it is constructed of brass and engraved with the names of the
21 SBU graduates lost on that day.

Books: published works written during the time period of the content under study or described such as memoirs, autobiographies, and works published at the time of the event. Eyewitness testimonies can also be published in book format. Example:

  • Cyclists' Paradise: A Guide for Cyclists with an Accurate Map Showing the Roads and Cycle Paths of Long Island: with Notes, Suggestions, Runs, Hotels and Time Tables Sufficient to Enable Any One to "Lay Out a Trip" Intelligently . Long Island City, NY: Issued by the Long Island Railroad Co, 1899. 

Beginning in the mid-19th century, the Long Island Rail Road produced countless numbers of travel and guidebooks touting Long Island as both an ideal resort destination and as a place to permanently reside. This map is part of an 18 page booklet that outlined a variety of routes for bicyclists to navigate the island. The roads in red were categorized as good, fair, and poor, however the small scale of the map and the blurred printing may have impacted bicyclists' attempts to "lay out a trip intelligently," as the title suggests. This book has been digitized by SBU Libraries and can viewed here

      cyclists      cyclists


Correspondence: communication exchanges through letter writing in any medium from paper to e-mail to tweets. Example:

  • Communications handwritten on postcards found within the Long Island Postcard Collection

"Wreck of the Naham [sic] Chapin on the beach at Quogue, L.J. [sic]." 1910. Long Island Postcard Collection,
Special Collections, SBU Libraries. 
Note the spelling of the three masted schooner is spelled incorrectly (Nahum),
as is the abbreviation for Long Island (it should be L.I.). 

Data: data sets; observations made during the conduct of experiments. Examples:

Dissertations: a document often in the form of a research paper or analysis completed in fulfillment of an academic degree. Example:

Ephemera: an item produced to communicate information and expected to have only short-term or temporary usefulness. Example:

  • Concert poster announcing the artists and musicians performing at the 2019 Brookfest at Stony Brook University 


Government Publications:
Laws, acts, hearings, and census data fall within this category. Example:

Manuscripts: a handwritten work; an unpublished work or a book, or document created using any means.

Maps: graphical, visual works that show features of Earth including landscapes, topography, and geography at a specific time and from a point of view. Example:

  • Burr, David. H. Map of Suffolk County from An Atlas of the State of New York: Containing a Map of the Documents Deposited in the Public Offices of the State and other Original and Authentic Information under the Superintendence and Direction of Simeon de Witt, Surveyor General, Pursuant to an Act of the Legislature; and also the Physical Geography of the State and of the Several Counties and Statistical Tables of the Same . New York: D. H. Burr, 1829. (Pictured: Town of Brookhaven, New York section)

burr atlas 

Oral and Video Histories:
interviews, discussions, and conversations recorded or documented to glean insights to a person's perspective and history.

Patents: a license or government entity designating right or title for a set period, especially the sole right to exclude others from making, using, or selling an invention. Example:

Recordings: Audio and video recordings of sights and sounds at the moment of capture. Speeches, performances, and lectures could fall within this category. Example:

Javits 1962

Senator Jacob K. Javits campaign, 1962. Photograph from the Senator Jacob K. Javits Collection. Special Collections, SBU Libraries.

a work such as a newspaper or magazine that is published and issued at an established frequency, e.g., bi-weekly, monthly, annually. Example:

First issue of The Stony Brook Press, Vol. 1 No. 1, October 25, 1975. University Archives, SBU Libraries.

Social Media: websites and applications that support networking and communicating timely information including blogs, vlogs, tweets, and posts to Facebook and Instagram. Example:


Visual Materials: broadly encompass a wide range of forms including films, photographs, artworks, and artifacts. Examples: 

Photograph of the 1969 SBU Baseball Team. University Archives, Photograph Collection, SBU Libraries.

1.4 Nature of Primary Sources

Later in this tutorial, you will encounter guided questions to help you evaluate primary sources. To introduce you to the investigative process, here is a short list of questions to consider as you progress in your research.

  • Who is the author or creator?
  • What biases or assumptions may have influenced the author or creator?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • Did the source have influence on the audience?
  • Has the source been edited or translated? Was the meaning altered?


1. Click here to access the QUIZ for Lesson 1  - it will open in a new window.
2. Answer all of the questions and submit your responses. 
3. Return to this page and click below on "Next: Continue to Lesson 2."


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