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Primary Sources

Primary Sources

Primary sources include historical and legal documents, eyewitness accounts, speeches, memoirs, results of experiments, statistical data, creative writing, unpublished manuscripts and archives, and audio and video recordings, among other documents. Interviews, surveys, and digital communications, including blogs and emails are also primary sources. Reports of direct observation from research, field studies, or experiments are also primary sources.

Letter by Bishop McTyeire, 1883In the case of organizations, primary sources are documents created by the organization in the course of its operation.  These documents can include annual reports, internal memorandums, letters, audio or video recordings, promotional material, and artifacts.

Primary sources help modern researchers interpret events in the context of the period in which it took place.  They can also offer insight into the personal, social, religious, and political views of individuals who experienced the event.

For organizations, primary sources can provide a glimpse into the decisions taking place behind the scenes which affected the direction of the organization.  They can also illustrate the history of the organization and its development over time.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are documents created by people removed in time from an historical event, or who were not present when the event happened.  Secondary sources may include reactions and opinions of people far removed from the event being studied.  Samples of secondary sources include textbooks, biographies, essays, and literary criticism.

Tips for Finding Primary Sources

Important Keywords

Manuscript collections or archives of organizational records often include some of the following keywords in their titles or content descriptions.  By including these words as keywords in a search, you have a better chance of finding collections of historical documents:

  • collection
  • papers
  • archive or archives
  • diaries
  • correspondence

Published Books and Articles

Many published secondary sources will include a Works Cited or Bibliography of the books, articles, and manuscript collections used by the author.  Primary sources are frequently listed together and will include the name of the collection, the name of the institution which owns the collection, and the city and state where they are located.

Library Catalogs

Library catalogs contain records for books, journals, databases, and other collections owned by a specific library.  Some catalogs, such as OCLC's WorldCat, will include records for items held by thousands of libraries.  Depending on the catalog's default search, the search results may include a wide variety of different formats.  To limit your results to manuscripts, look for a way to limit your search by type of material such as "archival" or "manuscript."  Switch to advanced search for more search options.

See the "Searching Library Catalog" tab for tips on searching locally owned collections.

See "Searching WorldCat" for tips on searching for items held by other libraries and institutions.

Online Resources

Depending on the size of the institution, some libraries and archives will list their manuscript and archival collections online so that researchers can find them more easily.  Lists of collection contents -- known as finding aids or research guides -- may also be available online.  These guides often provide a box by box list of what's in the collection, making it easier to find specific documents. 

The Vanderbilt Libraries maintain both an alphabetical list of collections and a subject guide to collections.

Some websites also provide lists of repositories within a geographic area or within a subject specialty. 

See "Searching Online" for more tips on finding resources online.