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Primary Sources: What are primary sources?

Primary sources can be a bit confusing. The purpose of this guide is to help you understand primary sources and where and how to find them.

What are primary sources?

A primary source is original information or production, such as photos, firsthand testimonials, diaries, letters, original research, case studies, and more. It is usually created the time the event occurred or when the individual being studied was alive.

The content and format of a primary source differs according to the discipline being studied. For example, if you are doing an art history paper you could reference the actual work of art for your primary source or if you are researching marijuana you might reference a published paper documenting a case study on the use of marijuana in palliative care. 

Examples of primary sources according to discipline:


Natural and social sciences (anthropology, biology, business and management, chemistry, communications, political science, psychology, sociology, etc...) primary sources are usually original studies or research but it can also include items such as artifacts and maps:

  • artifacts
  • case studies/reports
  • codes and statutes
  • field notes
  • interviews
  • legislative reports
  • maps
  • original experiments published by the people performing the research (includes methodology and data)
  • statistics
  • survey research


Most arts and humanities (arts, history, literature, music, religion, etc...) primary sources were created during the specific historical period and/or individual that is being studied:

  • autobiographies or memoirs
  • books (original works)
  • diaries
  • drawings
  • letters
  • news report
  • oral history
  • paintings
  • photographs
  • recordings (live performances, films, plays, etc...)
  • scores
  • speeches

Real life examples:


Assignment - A five page paper on depression in college students. 

Primary sources 

  • A keyword search in the database PsycInfo for depression and college students limited to full text, peer reviewed, and under methodology limited to clinical case study, empirical study, and field study yields many useful primary source articles. Example: "Relationship between sleep disturbance and depression, anxiety, and functioning in college students." Check and make sure that the article has original research. 


Assignment - A ten page paper on the World War II Japanese American experience. 

Primary sources -  

  • For primary sources on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you can do a keyword and subject advanced search in the library catalog VANCAT:Example search
  • The search result includes several primary sources including Imprisoned apart: the World War II correspondence of an Issei couple.
  • Calisphere provides access to the Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives where users can find photographs of the Exclusion Order and digitized copies of the Manzanar Free Press, the camp newspaper, both being primary sources. 

Need more information?

The following sites were referenced for this research guide. Check out the sites for more detailed definitions and examples:

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Created by...

This guide was created by Christine Shin.