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History 301 - Xiao

What is a primary source?

Primary source material is essential to the historian but they are not necessarily easily identified in the vast amounts of information available.  

A good definition from the Research Users Services Association's helpful guide Primary Sources on the Web: Finding, Evaluating, Using states "Primary sources are the evidence of history, original records or objects created by participants or observers at the time historical events occurred..." [emphasis mine]

There is leeway in this definition as materials created well after the event such as oral histories or memoirs will also be considered primary source since the person who experienced the event is the one recording the oral history or writing the memoir. Just keep in mind, that the longer it has been since the event, memories become increasingly selective. 

Even with primary source material, ask yourself if what you have is complete or biased in any way. If you are looking at a set of letters or a published memoir, consider how the editor or compiler made decisions about what to include. It may be certain materials were not included to portray a person or event in a certain light, material was considered irrelevant, or new evidence has come to light since the publication of the source you found. 

Primary source material may be found within what appears at first glance to be a secondary source. Sometimes a secondary source item will look like a primary source. When in doubt, ask for help! 

Examining Your Primary Sources

Keep in mind that, as with all information, primary sources may be biased and/or incomplete. Editors, authors and compilers choose what to include and exclude. Memories become fuzzy or unclear, and are always subjective. All creators have bias. 

In U.S.-based archives, you are more likely to find archives that reflect the dominant (white Eurocentric) culture. It takes money, time and physical space to create and collect archival resources, even if they weren't intended as such from the moment of creation. 

When you find a primary source focused on a non-dominant group, examine it closely. Who created this resource? What was the power hierarchy between the creator and the subject?