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How To...Work With Primary Sources

Starting points for learning about and using primary sources at College of the Holy Cross.

What is a Primary Source?

What is a Primary Source?

In the humanities, a primary source is a first-hand witness to a historical event or period, created at that point in history.

NOTE:  The term “primary research” is used in a different context in the sciences,
to designate an article which reports on original research.
Click here for more information. 

Primary sources can be….






Government docs


Legal docs










& more! 

Why Use Primary Sources?

Primary sources offer a first-hand perspective which is untouched by hindsight, subsequent events, or modern knowledge.  They provide valuable insights about the actions, motivations and emotions involved in a historical event, and allow us to understand history as it was experienced at the time rather than as we analyze it today.  

How Old Is “Primary”?

This depends entirely on your topic! If you are researching a monument at Gettysburg erected in 1908, your primary sources will date to the early 20th century.  But MIT’s sculptures commemorating the Boston Marathon were unveiled just last year, so those primary sources would be really current! And if you were researching the events themselves (rather than monuments)? Your primary sources would be from the 1860s and the early 2010s, respectively. There’s no “set” date range for primary sources about an event – it varies a lot -- but 5 years on either side is a good range to aim for to start. 

Are They “Scholarly”?

They can be.  A scholarly article on WWII published in 2016 is not a primary source.  But a scholarly article on WWII published in 1945 is! (JSTOR has articles back to the 1800s, in fact). But remember that with primary sources, the most important information is the first-hand perspective, rather than the scholarly-ness of the source. Of course, the author, publication, etc. provide useful context too! 

How Do I Interpret Primary Sources? 

Because they provide different kinds of information than secondary sources you may be used to (and provide it differently!), it can be difficult to know where to begin when working with primary sources. How you use each source will vary depending on the source and the topic, and the project or assignment requirements you may be working within. In general, though, the most important question to ask yourself is: What have I learned from this source that is unique to a "primary" voice? That is, what information or perspectives differentiate the source in your hand from a typical book, encyclopedia article, etc. on the subject? 

Some other things to consider: 

  • What is it about? 
  • What was its purpose and/or audience at the time it was written? 
  • What does this source tell you about your topic and/or the time period you are researching? 

For further guidance, see

The Information LifeCycle

The Information Lifecycle (watch video here) is crucial to the study of history. It helps us understand how information about an event or historical period might emerge and evolve over time. It also places primary sources in the context of the progression of events -- both at the event/time period and after -- and in relation to other primary and secondary sources on the topic. 

Click here to view sample sources from each stage of the information lifecycle, using the example of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. Remember -- not all primary sources (or historical events) are hundreds of years in the past.