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Primary Sources in American History: Getting Started

What are primary sources?

     

Primary sources are materials that provide first-hand information that is factual, without analysis or interpretation.  The accounts may be from the time they occurred or created at a later date by someone with first-hand knowledge. 

Primary sources include:

  • advertisements
  • autobiographies and memoirs
  • diaries
  • everyday artifacts, such as clothing, tools, and toys
  • interviews
  • letters
  • newspaper stories
  • original works of art, such as paintings, pottery, literature
  • photographs, postcards, and maps
  • speeches
  • television and radio broadcasts

What are primary sources good for?

Primary sources encourage you to develop your critical thinking skills.  These sources can provide important insights into history, but they are often incomplete and out of context - simply snippets of raw history.  They are also sometimes contradictory, with different sources offering different points of view.   Primary sources are like puzzle pieces that you, as a student of history, must piece together in a persuasive and thoughtful way, in order to understand and explain the past.

Primary sources give you a deeper knowledge of the past and make history more engaging.  The eye-witness nature of primary sources can help you to relate in a more personal way to events in the past.

Primary sources vs. secondary sources