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 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.
Special Collections on Microform
Descriptive guides are available for most microform collections at Index Reference shelf 13. The Library Catalog also includes records for documents found in the following collections:
- American Culture Series
- History of Women
- Human Relations Area Files
- Slavery Source Materials
Selected newspaper indexes can be found at Index Reference shelf 11.
Relevant Database Limiters
In addition to the example shown below, check database document type limiters for relevant categories such as speech or interview.