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History: Primary Sources: Primary and Secondary Sources
Madson Area Technical College Libraries Research Guide to Finding Primary Sources for your history research
Primary sources are firsthand accounts or records of events in history. These
sources reflect the point of view of a participant or observer at a particular
point of time. There are a wide range of primary source materials available
for historical research. For example:
Magazines, newspapers, books, and pamphlets written and published during
a particular time period
Diaries, letters, or papers usually written for personal reasons. Some
of these may have been published later, usually after the writer’s death.
Reports and records such as census data or minutes of an organization
Autobiographies and memoirs often written long after the events took place
and therefore, may be somewhat less reliable.
Photos, audio recordings, movies, buildings, and other physical objects
may also reveal information about the time period and popular culture
Compilations of primary sources such as a book containing many short excerpts
from primary sources are not as useful as the original sources themselves.
Source materials may have a bias or purpose which you should be aware of. For
example, an article from a northern paper during the civil war will read much
differently than an article from a southern paper. When reading primary sources,
think about why the piece was written, when it was written, and what it tells
us about the writer and the time period.