Primary Sources

What are Primary Sources?

From the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) of the American Library Association

Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories. Primary sources may include these items:

  • letters
  • manuscripts
  • diaries
  • journals
  • contemporary newspaper articles
  • speeches
  • interviews
  • pamphlets
  • government documents
  • photographs
  • audio recordings
  • moving pictures or video recordings
  • research data
  • objects or artifacts such as works of art or ancient roads, buildings, tools, and weapons
  • and other documents of the time.

These sources serve as the raw material to interpret the past, and when historians use them along with previous interpretations, they provide the resources necessary for historical research.

More about Primary Sources

Primary Sources Online(from the University of Berkeley Library)

Milestone Documents: Teaching with Primary Sources: Milestone Documents is your primary source for historic texts and expert analysis. We pair the most significant primary documents of all time with award-winning analysis by our global network of 300 historians and scholars. Whether you’re writing a paper, preparing for an exam, or looking to take your history study or instruction to the next level, your success starts here.

NARA 100 Milestone Documents (from the National Archives and Records Administration)

Teaching with Primary Sources (Library of Congress)

Why Study History Through Primary Sources? (Fordham University)

Historical Thinking Matters: A website focused on key topics in U.S. history, that is designed to teach students how to critically read primary sources and how to critique and construct historical narratives.

Benchmarks for Historical Thinking: The Historical Thinking Project aims to provide social studies departments, local boards, provincial ministries of education, publishers and public history agencies with models of more meaningful history teaching, assessment, and learning for their students and audiences.

Distinguish Between Primary and Secondary Sources (from University of California Santa Cruz)

American Memory Timeline for Teachers (from the Library of Congress)

U. Washington History United States

National Security Archive: National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Books provide online access to critical declassified records on issues including U.S. national security, foreign policy, diplomatic and military history, intelligence policy, and more. Updated frequently, the Electronic Briefing Books represent just a small sample of the documents in our published and unpublished collections (from George Washington University).

NOTE: Remember, when searching for primary sources the language of our time may not serve you well. For instance, documents written during World War I would have referred to the conflict as “The Great War.” The term “African American” is relatively modern in usage. Primary sources are often biased. As you analyze them, try to understand the lens through which you view them.

Primary Source Thumbnails (from Joyce Valenza)


AP Images

Life Magazine Image Archive

Library of Congress Photo Stream on Flickr

Artifact and Analysis The Smithsonian’s Artifacts and Analysis Idea Lab show you how to incorporate artifacts and documents into the teaching of U.S. history. Designed as a companion to the Advanced Placement Program U.S. History course, it is also effective in any instructional setting that emphasizes analytical thinking and writing.

Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln: (The University of Michigan Library)

National Humanities Center: Toolbox Library: Collections of primary resources compatible with the Common Core State Standards — historical documents, literary texts, and works of art — thematically organized with notes and discussion questions.

U. Washington History United States: A research guide to primary and secondary sources for American history.

U. Washington Primary Sources by Type: A research guide to primary and secondary sources for American history.

100 Terrific Sites to Find Primary Source Documents

Calisphere: World of Primary Sources and More (University of California)

Discovering American Women’s History Online: (Middle Tennessee State University)

Collection of Military Records: Fold3 provides convenient access to US military records, including the stories, photos, and personal documents of the men and women who served.

Library and Archival Indexes on the Web: (Smithsonian Libraries)

Museum of Online Museum

National Archives and Records Administration’s Digital Classroom

Picturing America (art galleries and resources) Picturing America, an exciting new initiative from the National Endowment for the Humanities, brings masterpieces of American art into classrooms and libraries nationwide. Through this innovative program, students and citizens will gain a deeper appreciation of our country’s history and character through the study and understanding of its art.

Prologue: Pieces of History Top 10 National Archives Web Sites

Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States

National Security Archive

Our Documents (primary sources and teaching resources)

Kathy Schrock’s Guide to Navigating Primary Sources on the Internet

VADS: Free Art and Design Images for Education (Read Terms of Use): VADS is the online resource for visual arts. It has provided services to the academic community for 12 years and has built up a considerable portfolio of visual art collections comprising over 100,000 images that are freely available and copyright cleared for use in learning, teaching and research in the UK.

Voice of the Shuttle: History (from the University of California, Santa Barbara)

AmericanMemoryLibrary of Congress?AmericanFolklife Collection Primary source collections from the Library of Congress National Digital Library Program.

Art of the Americas Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Avalon Project – Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy A collection of documents in history and law from ancient civilizations to the present.

Chronicling America – The Library of Congress American newspapers 1860-1922.

Digital Collections & Programs (Library of Congress)?Access to print, pictorial and audio-visual collections and other digital services

Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture digitized primary materials significant to the decorative arts and material culture of early America including electronic texts and facsimiles, image databases, and web resources.

Documenting the American South Documenting the American South is a collection of sources on Southern history, literature and culture from the colonial period through the first decades of the 20th century from the University of North Carolina.

Early American Paintings Worcester Art Museum

Founders’ Constitution An online anthology of documents from the 17th century through the 1830's related to constitutional history. From the University of Chicago and the Liberty Fund.

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art Chronological, geographical, and thematic exploration of the history of world art

Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930 Harvard Open Collections Program: Digital collection of selected historical materials documenting voluntary immigration to the US.

Internet History Sourcebooks Project Full-text historical documents and links for ancient, medieval, and modern history. Paul Halsall/Fordham University.

LIFE photo archive Millions of photographs from the LIFE photo archive, hosted by Google, stretching from the 1750s to today.

Making of America From the University of Michigan, this digital library of primary resources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction including sociology as well as education, psychology, American history, religion, science and technology.

Manuscript Collections Relating to Slavery from New York Historical Society.

NYPL Digital Gallery New York Public Library Digitized Collections

Office of the Historian U.S.Department of State Access to official historical documentary records of U.S. foreign policy.

Trails of Hope: Overland Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869: Trails of Hope: Overland Diaries and Letters,1846–1869 is a collection of the original writings of 49 voyagers on the Mormon, California, Oregon, and Montana trails who wrote while traveling on the trail. Some diarists speak with uncommon eloquence and others with maddening brevity, while telling their stories of persistence and pain, birth and death, God and gold, dust and debris, bugs and buffalo, love and laughter, and trail tedium. Accompanying the original diary images and their searchable transcripts are 43 contemporary maps; seven trail guides; 82 photographs, watercolors and art sketches; four essays on the Mormon and California trails, maps and trail guides.

Women Working – 1800–1930 Harvard Open Collections Program; approximately 500,000 digitized pages and images focused on the role of women in the U.S. economy.

WGBH the Open Vault Series and Collections: Welcome to Open Vault, the home of WGBH Media Library and Archives (MLA). We provide online access to unique and historically important content produced by the public television and radio station WGBH. The ever-expanding site contains video, audio, images, searchable transcripts, and resource management tools, all of which are available for individual and classroom learning.

What is a secondary source?

A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. A secondary source is something written about a primary source. Secondary sources include comments on, interpretations of, or discussions about the original material. You can think of secondary sources as second-hand information. If I tell you something, I am the primary source. If you tell someone else what I told you, you are the secondary source. Secondary source materials can be articles in newspapers or popular magazines, book or movie reviews, or articles found in scholarly journals that discuss or evaluate someone else’s original research. Secondary sources may also have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them.

Some types of secondary sources include:

  • PUBLICATIONS: Textbooks, magazine articles, histories, criticisms, commentaries, and encyclopedias
  • A journal/magazine article that interprets or reviews previous findings
  • A history textbook
  • A book about the effects of WWI