Primary sources can be a tricky business: what are they? where are they? how do I use them?
In some situations, it can be difficult to pin down the exact nature of a primary source, especially when it comes to citing that source in a bibliography. And even trickier still, a lot of people have slightly different definitions of what constitutes a primary source.
Here are a few rules of thumb to think about, regarding primary sources:
- Primary sources are firsthand accounts. This can mean that they were created at the time of an event or created by a witness. Sometimes, witnesses give interviews or write books years after the event, which still makes them a primary source. (Example: autobiographies, interviews with war veterans).
- Primary sources are more than just photographs and newspapers. Although those two primary sources are very helpful, consider letters, diaries, government documents, propaganda, posters, artwork, literature, buildings, oral histories, maps, historical film footage, objects, trial opinions, and petitions, among many others.
- Individual quotes are not primary sources. If you find a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt on thinkquote.com or another quote website, that quote has been removed from its original document by someone else and therefore, cannot be considered primary. You need to find the original document. Think twice before you fill up your primary source bibliography with 50 quotes found on quote sites.
- Incomplete documents are usually not primary. Similar to individual quotes, documents that you find in pieces have been modified by someone else; they have decided what is important about that source, so it is no longer primary. The entire text of the Declaration of Independence is primary (even if found in your textbook), but a single charge against King George from that document, listed alone, is not. (Use your discretion here and check with teachers and librarians.)
- Cite the primary source first, then the secondary source where you found it. That way, judges and teachers can see that you are referencing a primary source that you found in a secondary source, and not just a secondary source. Example: "Advertisement for Vacuum Cleaner," 1918. Bissell Motor Co. American Passages: A History of the United States, ed. Ayers, Gould, Oshinsky and Soderlund. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010. Page 559.
This online module, created by the University of Illinois, gives some good information on defining and using primary sources.