Primary Sources Definition

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Scholars’ Definitions of Primary Sources

The following quotations from scholars and academic institutions were selected by historian Justin Lyles to aid users in understanding the concept of primary sources:

“A primary source is firsthand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. The nature and value of a source cannot be determined without reference to the topic and questions it is meant to answer. The same document, or other piece of evidence, may be a primary source in one investigation and secondary in another. The search for primary sources does not, therefore, automatically include or exclude any category of records or documents.

“By a ‘source’ the historian means material that is contemporary to the events being examined. Such sources include, among other things, diaries, letters, newspapers, magazine articles, tape recordings, pictures, and maps. Such material may have appeared in print before, edited or unedited, and still be a source. The term is meant to be restrictive rather than inclusive, in that it attempts to indicate that works of secondary scholarship, or synthesis, are not sources, since the data have been distilled by another person. … One good way for the novice historian to lose Brownie points among his serious-minded fellows is to call a biography of George Washington or an analysis of the Magna Charta a ‘source’.”

–Robin Winks, The historian as detective; essays on evidence (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p.xx.

“A primary source gives the words of the witnesses or the first recorders of an event. Primary sources include manuscripts, archives, letters, diaries, and speeches. … Secondary sources are ‘descriptions of the event derived from and based on primary sources’. The line between primary and secondary sources is often indistinct, for example, a single document may be a primary source on some matter and a secondary source on others.”

–Helen J. Poulton, The historian’s handbook (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972), p.175-76.

“A primary source is distinguished from a secondary by the fact that the former gives the words of the witnesses or first recorders of an event – for example, the diaries of Count Ciano written under Mussolini’s regime. The researcher, using a number of such primary sources, produces a secondary source .”

–Jacques Barzun, The modern researcher . Fifth edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992), p.114 note.

“Primary sources are manuscripts, first-person diaries, oral histories, letters, interviews, photographs, maps, films, sound recordings, music, song sheets–fragments of history, incomplete in themselves, but when assembled, analyzed, and researched, they can provide personal insights, human drama, and deep historical understandings. Primary sources can also be places and people. They are resources that speak directly to the viewer, the reader, and the listener without explanatory context. They evoke a sense of time and place. They often carry a point of view and thus, by definition, are not always neutral or objective. This means that one primary source can contradict another–or corroborate another. Educators must understand how to work with these ambiguities and help students construct the context for deeper understandings. This can be done even with very young children.”

–Susan H. Veccia, Uncovering our history: teaching with primary sources. (Chicago: American Library Association, 2004), p. 3.

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