Primary Sources

Primary sources are original documents that are records of events as first described without interpretation or commentary.  These are “raw” material in the sense that they have not been summarized or processed.  In the humanities, primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period.  In the sciences, often primary literature refers to the first place a scientist publishes the results of scientific investigations. 

Often primary sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later. Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of whether they are available in original format, in microfilm/microfiche, in digital format, or in published format.

Examples: diaries, letters, ledgers, emails, photographs, statistics, court records, interviews, memoirs, autobiographies, surveys, scientific research reports, weblogs.

Primary source:  letters Migrant Mother, Dust Bowl 1930's

         Letters                                                           Migrant Mother with her children.  Photographed by
                                                                                Dorothea Lange.  1936.  American Memory Project.

Watch the following powerpoint to give you a better understanding of primary sources.

 Sarah Gudger       Charlie Williams with Granddaughter            "James Boyd, Age 100"

Take a look at the American Memory Project's Slave Narratives to get a glimpse of what life was like during slavery.  These recordings were made in the 1930's by the Federal Writer's Project.


How to locate primary sources  

The Repository of Primary Sources at the University of Idaho

The U of I Repository contains a list of over 5000 websites describing holdings of manuscripts, archives, rare books, historical photographs, and other primary sources for the research scholar.

Another site for primary sources is the Library of Congress American Memory site (


Scientific Information Literacy Modules
Unit 1:  What is Science?
Unit 2:  Scientific Information
History Information Literacy Modules