Primary Sources, what are they?

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How do I define them?

By Averil Staunton

What is a primary source?

Primary sources are materials directly related to a topic by time or participation.  These materials include letters, speeches, diaries, newspaper articles from the particular time, oral history interviews, documents, photographs, artifacts, or anything else that provides firsthand accounts about a person or event.

Some materials might be considered primary sources for one topic but not for another. For example, a newspaper article about  'Rising’ which lasted from Easter Monday 24 April to 30 April 1916, written in April/June 1916 was most likely written by a participant or eyewitness and would be a primary source; however, an article about the Rising written in August 1916 was probably not written by an eyewitness or participant and would not be a primary source.

Similarly, Daniel O’Connell’s speech on February 4, 1836, in the House of Commons calling for equal justice for the Irish is a primary source but a speech given on its anniversary is not a primary source.

If, however, the topic was how the Irish commemorate their historical events this speech would be a primary source for that topic.

If there's any doubt about whether a source should be listed as primary or secondary, you should explain in your bibliography why you chose to categorize it as you did.

Researchers, writers, students should consider the following locations when looking for primary source material:

  1.  University and College Libraries
  2.  Local Historical Societies
  3.  Local or County Libraries
  4.  Museums
  5.  National Archives
  6.  Corporate Archives
  7.  Town and County Historians
  8.  Town Planning Offices
  9.  Schools
  10.  Churches
  11.  Community Residents

Here are some common questions about primary sources:

Are interviews with experts primary sources?

No, an interview with an expert - a professor of History etc - is not a primary source, UNLESS that expert actually lived through and has firsthand knowledge of the events being described.

If I find a quote from a historical figure in a textbook or another secondary source and I use the quote in my project, should I list it as a primary source?

No, quotes from historical figures which are found in secondary sources are not considered primary sources. The author of the book has processed the quotation, selecting it from the original source. Without seeing the original source for yourself, you don't know if the quotation is taken out of context, what else was in the source, what the context was, etc.

This page was added by Averil Staunton on 18/11/2011.