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Primary Sources – United States and California History: Home

The purpose of the guide is to help users identify, locate, and use primary sources in their historical research.

The Thrill of Discovery: Primary Sources

Find an overview of Primary sources in Chapter 6, "The Thrill of Discovery: Primary Sources," in the book, The Information-Literate Historian, by Jenny L. Presnell

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Definition of Primary Sources

A Description of Primary Sources Using the Five "W's":

A primary source is testimony of direct evidence in the form of documents (diaries, interviews, letters, official records), creative works (novels, music, poetry, art), and artifacts (tools, pottery, furniture).


Primary sources are created, sometimes unwittingly, by observers, witnesses or recorders.  They are recorded FIRST HAND, and in FIRST PERSON.  A handed-down story or a compilation or interpretation is not a primary source.


Ideally, primary sources are created at or near the time of the event or situation.  Primary sources can also be created at a later date, and may be found as autobiographies, memoirs or oral histories.  


"Primary source" refers to the content not to the format.   These sources can be found in their original format or in a reproduced format, including paper and electronic formats.  


Primary sources can be created for any number of reasons, and when evaluating a primary document, it is important to consider any motives the person documenting the event my have for creating the source.