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What is a Primary Source?
A primary source is a first-hand witness to a historical event or period (that is, it was originally created at that point in history). Primary sources offer a first-hand perspective which is untouched by hindsight, subsequent events, or modern knowledge. They provide insights about the actions, motivations and emotions involved in a historical period, and allow us to understand history as it was experienced at the time rather than as we analyze it today.
Unlike with secondary sources, the value of primary sources lies in their proximity to the event rather than a particular publication venue and/or authority (though this can also play a role in your interpretation of the source). For this reason, primary sources may include a combination of scholarly, popular, unpublished, and other kinds of sources.
Secondary sources are second-hand witnesses -- they provide descriptions and/or analysis of historical events and documents after the fact. Secondary sources usually draw their information from primary sources, but add a layer of interpretation, and often rely upon the kind of understanding of historical periods and/or events that only becomes clear sometime later.
|author||A first-hand witness to a historical event or period||A second-hand witness who interprets first-hand information using later understanding of events|
|date||Typically, but not always, published in or near the relevant time period or event. Exceptions can include memoirs or compilations, translations, etc. published at a later date.||Typically removed in time from the relevant period/event|
|original purpose||Varies widely. Typically not intentionally created for sake of history or research.||Varies; usually, to convey information or analysis|
Offers first-hand perspectives untouched by hindsight or modern knowledge
|Offers descriptions, and/or analysis of historical events after the fact; may also offer synthesis of first-hand information.|
|publication format||Varies; can include nearly anything from an object to a scholarly article [if from the appropriate period]||Typically "published" sources -- books, journal articles, magazines/newspapers|
|examples||NYT article from April 1912 [Titanic], 1963 book on the USSR [Cold War], George Washington's collected papers [Colonial America/Revolution]||American Historical Review; current NYT articles; a book published in 2018|
Analyzing Primary Sources: