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Primary Sources for History: What is a primary source?

Various primary sources

Primary Sources

Rigid classification of primary or secondary sources can distort and misrepresent. It is impossible to assign a label to a source without knowing how it is used as evidence. The nature of a source does not derive from the kind of object it is, but rather from the purpose it serves in a historical investigation

Usually, a primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event. Some types of primary sources might include:

  • ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS (excerpts or translations acceptable): Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records 

  • CREATIVE WORKS: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art

  • RELICS OR ARTIFACTS: Pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings

 Photograph of old lettersExamples of primary sources include:

  • Diary of Anne Frank - Experiences of a Jewish family during WWII 

  • The Constitution of Canada - Canadian History 

  • A journal article reporting NEW research or findings 

  • Weavings and pottery - Native American history 

  • Plato's Republic - Women in Ancient Greece