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In historical scholarship, a primary source is a document, or other source of information that was created at or near the time being studied, by an authoritative source, usually one with direct personal knowledge of the events being described. In this sense primary does not mean superior. It refers to creation by the primary players, and is distinguished from a secondary source, which in historical scholarship is a work, such as a scholarly book or article, built up from primary sources.[1]

Types of primary sources

The nature of a primary source depends on the historical problem being studied. In political history, the most important primary sources are likely to be documents such as official reports, speeches, pamphlets, posters, or letters by participants, official election returns, and eyewitness accounts (as by a journalist who was there). In the history of ideas or intellectual history, the dominant primary sources are books, essays and letters written by intellectuals. A study of cultural history could include fictional sources such as novels or plays. In a broader sense primary sources also include physical objects like photographs, newsreels, coins, paintings or buildings created at the time. Historians may also take archaeological artifacts and oral reports and interviews into consideration. Written sources may be divided into three main types.[2]

  • Narrative sources or literary sources tell a story or message. They are not limited to fictional sources (which can be sources of information for contemporary attitudes), but include diaries, films, biographies, scientific works, and so on.
  • Diplomatic sources include charters and other legal documents which usually follow a set format.
  • Social documents are records created by organizations, such as registers of births, tax records, and so on.

In the study of historiography, when the study of history is itself subject to historical scrutiny, a secondary source becomes a primary source. For a biography of a historian, that historian's publications would be primary sources. Documentary films can be considered a secondary source or primary source, depending on how much the filmmaker modifies the original sources.[3]

Using primary sources

History as an academic discipline is based on primary sources, as evaluated by the community of scholars, who report their findings in books, articles and papers. Arthur Marwick says "Primary sources are absolutely fundamental to history."[4]. Ideally, a historian will use all available primary sources created by the people involved, at the time being studied. In practice some sources have been destroyed, while others are not available for research. Perhaps the only eyewitness reports of an event may be memoirs, autobiographies, or oral interviews taken years later. Sometimes the only documents relating to an event or person in the distant past were written decades or centuries later. This is a common problem in classical studies, where sometimes only a summary of a book has survived. Potential difficulties with primary sources have the result that history is usually taught in schools using secondary sources.

Historians studying the modern period with the intention of publishing an academic article prefer to go back to available primary sources and to seek new (in other words, forgotten or lost) ones. Primary sources, whether accurate or not, offer new input into historical questions and most modern history revolves around heavy use of archives and special collections for the purpose of finding useful primary sources. A work on history is not likely to be taken seriously as scholarship if it only cites secondary sources, as it does not indicate that original research has been done.[5]

However, primary sources - particularly those from before the 20th century - may have hidden challenges. "Primary sources, in fact, are usually fragmentary, ambiguous and very difficult to analyse and interpret."[6] Obsolete meanings of familiar words and social context are among the traps that await the newcomer to historical studies. For this reason, The interpretation of primary texts is typically taught as part of an advanced college or postgraduate history course, however advanced self-study or informal training is also possible.

Strengths and weaknesses of primary sources

A primary source is not necessarily more authoritative or accurate than a secondary source. "Original material may be ... prejudiced, or at least not exactly what it claims to be."[7] Secondary sources are often subjected to peer review, can be well documented, and are often written by historians working in institutions where methodological accuracy is important to the future of the author's career and reputation.

Historians consider the accuracy and objectiveness of the primary sources they are using and historians subject both primary and secondary sources to a high level of scrutiny. A primary source such as a journal entry, at best, only reflects one person's take on events, which may or may not be truthful, accurate, or complete. Participants and eyewitnesses may misunderstand events or distort their reports (deliberately or unconsciously) to enhance their own image or importance. Such effects can increase over time, as people create a narrative that may not be accurate. [8]

For any source, primary or secondary, it is important for the researcher to evaluate the amount and direction of bias.[9] For example, a government report may be an accurate and unbiased description of events, but it can be censored or altered for propaganda or coverup purposes. Every barrister knows evidence in a court case may be truthful, but it may be distorted to support (or oppose) the position of one of the parties.


Medieval historians must contend with forged documents created to create legal rights. For centuries the Pope used the forged Donation of Constantine to bolster the Papacy. The investigation of documents to determine their authenticity is diplomatics. Among the earliest forgeries are Anglo-Saxon Charters. There are a number of 11th and 12th century forgeries produced by monastries and abbeys to support a claim to land where the original document had been lost (or never existed). One particularly unusual forgery of a primary source was perpetrated by Sir Edward Deering who placed false monumental brasses in a local church. [10] In 1986, Hugh Trevor-Roper "authenticated" the Hitler diaries which proved to be forgeries. Recently, forged documents have been placed within the UK National Archives in the hope of establishing a false provenance. [11] However, historians dealing with recent centuries rarely encounter forgeries of any importance.

See also


  1. Handlin (1954) 118-246
  2. Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier, From Reliable Sources, pp. 20-22.
  3. Cripps (1995)
  4. Primary sources; handle with care in Drake and Finnegan ( 1997)
  5. Handlin (1954)
  6. Marwick, Primary sources; handle with care in Drake and Finnegan (1997)
  7. David Iredale, Enjoying Archives
  8. Sommer and Quinlan (2002)
  9. Library of Congress (2007)
  10. A Camp, Everyone has Roots


  • Jules R. Benjamin. A Student's Guide to History (2003)
  • Kathleen W. Craver. Using Internet Primary Sources to Teach Critical Thinking Skills in History (1999)
  • Thomas Cripps, "Historical Truth: An Interview with Ken Burns", American Historical Review 100 (1995), 741-64. online at JSTOR
  • Michael Drake and Ruth Finnegan (Eds), Sources and Methods for Family and Community Historians: A Handbook, (Cambridge University Press in conjunction with the Open University, 1997)
  • Wood Gray, Historian's handbook, a key to the study and writing of history (Houghton Mifflin, 1964).
  • Oscar Handlin et al., Harvard Guide to American History (1954)
  • Martha C. Howell and Walter Prevenier. From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods (2001)
  • Library of Congress, " Analysis of Primary Sources" online 2007
  • Richard A. Marius and Melvin E. Page. A Short Guide to Writing About History (5th Edition) (2004)
  • Barbara W. Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan, The Oral History Manual (2002)

External links

- to primary sources repositories

- to all sources repositories
  • WikisourceThe Free Library – is the Wikimedia project that collects, edits, and catalogs all source texts.

- to essays and descriptions of primary, secondary and other sources
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