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Primary Sources: What are they?

What is a primary source?

A primary source is something that was created and/or experienced at the time being studied. They provide a first-hand or eye witness account. Examples of primary sources include historical documents, artifacts, diaries or journals, speeches, oral histories, photos, newspaper clippings, letters, etc. Reproductions of primary sources (remember, we won't have the originals of some types of sources) can often be found in books, in databases, and online

photo credit: Massachusetts Historical Society 

Primary sources also include original works, such as pieces of art, research and data, and creative writing. These, too, often be found in books, in databases, and online. 

photo credit: Flickr; Wikipedia Commons 

Using the BC Library While Off Campus

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Types of Primary Sources

There are many types of primary sources.

Literary or cultural sources

  • novels, plays, poems
  • television shows, movies, videos
  • paintings, photographs

Accounts that describe events, people, or ideas

  • interviews
  • eyewitness accounts
  • essays, speeches
  • memoirs, diaries, letters
  • government documents 

Information about people

  • census records
  • obituaries
  • newspaper articles

Information about places

  • maps, atlases
  • census information
  • photographs


  • clothing
  • furniture
  • artifacts

Empirical Works

  • research articles
  • clinical reports
  • case studies
  • original data

Adapted in part from University of Michigan Library 

Reference Librarian

Mindy Wilmot's picture
Mindy Wilmot