Created by Nicholas Gordon, Graduate Teaching Assistant, Wichita State University Libraries, summer 2018
A primary source is the original source of information of a topic. The information is usually created at the time of an event. What defines a primary resource varies slightly with each discipline. Typically, artifacts, diaries and manuscripts, autobiographies, photographs, audio files of interviews before editing, blogs and vlogs published and produced by the creator are considered to be primary information sources.
Primary sources are NOT usually unbiased. In fact almost all information contains bias, if only because information may be missing. A researcher must thoroughly conduct an investigation into their topic to understand biases inherent in each information source. Many primary sources are found in the WSU Libraries A-Z Database list.
Sedgwick County Land Office, as depicted in Harper's Weekly, 1874
What defines a primary resource? This varies slightly with each discipline. Here are some examples:
A primary source may provide legal documentation, evidence of popular culture in a region and/or time period or illustrate experiences of an individual. Be sure to ask your librarian or an instructor for more suggestions for primary sources.
Many of our subject guides include specialized resources for primary sources, so be sure to check out those pages, too!
The word "periodical" is a generic word for publications published periodically, such as journals, magazines and newspapers. Periodicals can be considered to be primary sources when an article contains information about original research or theory. The author's own words about the work s/he created would be a primary source.
Scholarly journal articles most often publish this type of information. However, newspapers can include articles by professional writers embedded in military units and writers who have first-hand experiences.
These sources are electronic versions of personal opinions and experiences. Writings by specialists, professional journalists, and others considered to be authorities in their field would be credible sources, depending on their specialty and the topic of the writing. If the researcher needs to know opinions and see dialog, blogs and social media can be primary sources.
Robin Roberts of Good Morning America on ABC
Similar to periodicals, a book would be a primary source if it contains the author's own opinion or thoughts about theory, documents original research, or is autobiographical. Fiction works are primary sources for works of criticism and reviews.
Books usually offer a broad view of a topic. Books are great sources when the researcher needs an overview of a topic and therefore are sometimes useful for background information. Historical topics are usually covered better in books than in articles. The researcher may not need the whole book for research. Look at the table of contents or chapter list for the most relevant chapters. Scan through the index in the back of the book for your main topic and check out the pages that are listed for that topic (as well as the rest of that sub-chapter).
Encyclopedias are not typically considered to be primary sources, but ANYTHING can be a primary source if it contains original information. Encyclopedias are a compendium of informational articles usually written by subject-matter experts. Entries range from short paragraphs to multiple pages. Encyclopedias may be multi-disciplinary, such as Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica, or subject-specific, such as the Encyclopedia of African Cultural Heritage in North America.
Do you want to know how Wikipedia articles are created and modified? The primary source would be the Wikipedia article that addresses this topic.
Handbooks and Standards
These book sources often contain information required for maintaining technical norms and integrity. Engineering, grammar, and many other fields use handbooks and standards to establish required benchmarks. Handbooks and standards are considered to be primary sources when used for this type of information. Textbooks often gather information from these sources.
Legal materials, including statutes, bills, congressional reports, hearings, court records, case notes, brochures and other documents produced by federal, state and local governments are original sources of information. Some documents, such as court proceedings, also include transcripts of conversations.
Handwritten or typed notes, journals and diaries, ledgers and other handwritten records of economic transactions all record personal, historical experiences. Although this medium may be digitized as PDF or other image files, the original must be on paper to be defined as a manuscript.
There are many types of patents. Like standards, patents provide information about the specifications of a design, a process, or other product or idea. Although most patents contain images, a textual description accompanies each patent.
Man-made objects, typically of cultural or historical interest, are called artifacts. Artifacts are most often used as primary sources for cultural anthropology or historical research, but tools, technology and other objects may be useful information sources in other fields as well. Museums, libraries and personal collections are all good sources for artifacts.
Pueblo Indian pottery, miniature seed jar, Lowell D. Holmes Museum of Anthropology, Wichita State University
A diagrammatic representation of an area of land, sea or sky usually illustrates spatial arrangement or distribution of something, such as population. These primary sources may still include bias, as with statistics and other sources. Think about what information may have been excluded. Although Native American inhabitation and United States forts are included on this map, other important pieces of information relevant to this era might be omitted. WSU Special Collections includes maps. See the "Finding Sources" page in this guide for more information.
Cram's Rail Road and Township Map of Kansas, 1878AD
Similar to fictional books, criticisms and reviews (such as for films, television shows and other motion pictures) require reference to the original item being reviewed. Documentaries may also be primary sources if interviews, original footage and other first-hand experiences are included.
WSU Libraries has several streaming media databases. Learn how to find these databases on the A-Z Databases Page on the "Finding Sources" page in this guide. Dartmouth College Library has a comprehensive guide on historical film research.
Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard in The Great Dictator trailer 2
Criticisms and reviews of music, musicals, and other performances require reference to the original item being reviewed. WSU Libraries has several streaming media databases. Learn how to find these databases on the A-Z Databases Page on the "Finding Sources" page in this guide.
Elvis on the CBS television program Stage Show, January 16, 1956
Photographs document events or relationships, history of an organization or location, and provide evidence of an historical event. WSU Special Collections includes photographs and other images. See the "Finding Sources" page in this guide for more information.
WSU President's Diversity Council members, spring 2017
As with other public performances, a researcher/writer should reference the original material. Speeches and interviews may be found in audio formats or transcribed. Search the library online catalog for a particular speech title or speaker. Compilations of speeches may be found with the subject search "speeches" or "sermons."
Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964; By Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram staff photographer
Numerical information may be represented statistically as a summary (such as the total civilian labor force shown in this chart) or specific data sets may be available, which is more detailed information and less open to interpretation. Data may be collected by a variety of methods, including experiments, observational studies, sampling and with other methods and tools. WSU Libraries has several statistical databases. Learn how to find these databases on the A-Z Databases Page on the "Finding Sources" page in this guide.
US Labor Force Participation Rate, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Date: 11/05/10