What is a Primary Source?
Primary sources are "fundamental, authoritative documents relating to a subject, ...e.g., original records, contemporary documents, etc." (Young, Heartsill, ed. The ALA Glossary of Library and Information Science. Chicago: American Library Association, 1983, p.176). Primary source documents are first-hand accounts by a direct participant or witness and may include letters, diaries, interviews, photographs, films, maps, government documents, field notes, and more.
Primary sources generally are uninterpreted. Analysis and context may be provided in secondary source books and journal articles. For the natural and social sciences, however, primary sources also include the original account of a research study, typically published as an article in a scholarly journal. Find a fuller explanation in the SUNY Albany and Virginia Polytechnic resources below.
For the arts, history, and humanities, original primary source documents usually are housed in museums, archives, restricted library collections, and government offices. Reproductions of primary source documents often can be found in online digital collections, microform collections, books, and other secondary works.
Video: Understanding Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources
Learn to distinguish and when to use these types of information sources, with examples for the Arts and Humanities and the Natural and Social Sciences (summary notes). By Credo Reference/Literati.