What is a primary source?

(compiled by Yasmina Lemieux)

Excerpt from:
"Using primary sources on the Web." Reference & User Services Association -- History Section. 15 Oct. 2003. American Library Association. 05 Dec. 2007 <http://www.lib.washington.edu/subject/History/RUSA/>.

external image geo.gifPrimary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories. Primary sources may include letters, manuscripts, diaries, journals, newspapers, speeches, interviews, memoirs, documents produced by government agencies such as Congress or the Office of the President, photographs, audio recordings, moving pictures or video recordings, research data, and objects or artifacts such as works of art or ancient roads, buildings, tools, and weapons. These sources serve as the raw material to interpret the past, and when they are used along with previous interpretations by historians, they provide the resources necessary for historical research.

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Excerpt from:
Eamon, Michael. "Defining primary and secondary sources." Learning Centre Toolkit. 30 Mar. 2004. Library and Archives Canada. 05 Dec. 2007 <http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/education/008- 3010-e.html>
People use original, first-hand accounts as building blocks to create stories from the past. These accounts are called primary sources, because they are the first evidence of something happening, or being thought or said.
Primary sources are created at the time of an event, or very soon after something has happened. These sources are often rare or one-of-a-kind. However, some primary sources can also exist in many copies, if they were popular and widely available at the time that they were created.
All of the following can be primary sources:
  • Diaries
  • Letters
  • Photographs
  • Art
  • Maps
  • Video and film
  • Sound recordings
  • Interviews
  • Newspapers
  • Magazines
  • Published first-hand accounts, or stories

When is a primary source not a primary source?

You may have noticed that some things are on both the lists of primary and secondary sources. This isn't a mistake. The difference between a primary and secondary source is often determined by how they were originally created and how you use them.
Here's an example: a painting or a photograph is often considered a primary source, because paintings and photographs can illustrate past events as they happened and people as they were at a particular time. However, not all artworks and photographs are considered primary sources. Read on!
A painting of an event which is created at a given place in time may be a representation of the event, and therefore, a primary source. However, if a painting is created later, based on accounts of an event, it would no longer be a primary source, as it is not considered a first-hand account of events.


Primary sources:
Secondary sources:
  • created at the time of an event, or very soon after
  • created after event; sometimes a long time after something happened
  • created by someone who saw or heard an event themselves
  • often uses primary sources as examples
  • often one-of-a-kind, or rare
  • expresses an opinion or an argument about a past event
  • letters, diaries, photos and newspapers (can all be primary sources)
  • history text books, historical movies and biographies (can all be secondary sources

Questioning Primary Sources

Knowing the differences between primary and secondary sources is the first step to better understanding the past. Once you have found your primary sources, it is important to question them to find out what they say and who made them.
A primary source is created every time you send an email, take a photograph, or write in your journal. These primary sources reflect the worries, concern, or opinions you have when you create them.
When looking at primary sources, there are several questions you should always ask to help you understand the material. These questions will also help you figure out if a source is authentic or fake. Authentic primary sources are great research material for projects, but you need to be careful of fake ones!
Sometimes it will be easy to get the answers to your questions, and sometimes it will be impossible. Don't worry if it gets difficult -- just asking the questions is important.
The five key questions:
What is the primary source? Is it a photo? If so, is it in black and white or colour? Is it a letter? If so, is it typed, or handwritten?

Who wrote the letter, took the photo or painted the painting? Can you be sure it was really that person who made it?

When was the primary source created? How can you tell its age?

Can you tell where the primary source was created?

Why was the primary source created? Does it tell a story? Is it a love letter? Is it an order from an officer to a soldier? Is it a picture of the Rocky Mountains? Does the primary source tell you why it was created? Can you guess why it was created?

When you are studying a primary source, write down your answers to the five key questions. Do you think that the primary source is authentic? Do you think it is fake? An authentic source can tell you lots about the people, places, and events of the past. What did people think in the past? How did they talk to each other? What did they wear? You can find out for yourself using primary sources.

Primary Sources on the Internet:

· Library and Archives Canada

· Proquest database
(Try using Newspapers tab)

· CBC Archives

· Democracy at War: Canadian newspapers and the Second World War

· Images Canada

· BBC Archives

· Saskatchewan News Index

· MemoryProject

ViVideo Project