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What is a primary source?
|Archival Materials||Manuscript Materials||Photographs|
|Audio Recordings||Video Recordings||Films|
|Speeches||Scrapbooks||Published Books (at the time)|
|Government Publications||Oral Histories||Newspapers (at the time)|
|Records of Organizations||Autobiographies/Memoirs||Magazine Clippings (at the time)|
|Printed Ephemera||Artifacts, e.g. clothing, costumes, furniture||Research Data, e.g. public opinion polls|
What is NOT a Primary Source?
Here's a list of sources you may encounter, which, while helpful and useful for researching aspects of your topic, are NOT considered Primary Source materials. Remember, if you have a questions about whether something counts as a Primary Source, your instructor has the final word (although a Librarian can certainly provide advice!).
• A dictionary or encyclopedia article (these are sometimes referred to as "background" sources, since they provide an overview, or background, on a given topic, without the depth needed for a research paper).
• A textbook that contain data or information drawn from primary sources.
• Any NON-eyewitness account that relies on information from other people or sources.
• An account that includes an opinion of what the writer believes occurred during an event, or an assessment of what the writer feels is the influence/legacy/meaning of the event, by a writer who was NOT present at the event in question.
• A magazine or newspaper account summarizing the event. HOWEVER: depending on the event you are researching, newspaper articles can provide an indication of how the event was viewed at the time, such as how a speech or decision made by leaders was received, how the general public reacted to a given event, or how a community or group was affected by the event.
Why are primary sources important?
Here's some "Insider's Advice" from an instructor of History here at USMA. History instructors LOVE seeing cadets use a variety of sources with different perspectives, including:
• Diaries (written at the time of the events): for what they reveal about the person you are researching.
• Military orders: were written for a specific audience and show intent.
• Letters: were written for a specific audience and show intent. However, be aware of/consider the intended audience when using.
• AARs (After Action Reports) & Congressional documents: for the action, execution and reception they reveal regarding an event.
• Newspapers: indicate the reception of an event, decision, law, etc. Be careful though: bias may affect the information presented.
• Memoirs: for their distance from the event, meaning the writer had time to reflect on past actions. However, note that this reflection at a chronological distance may be defensive (to preserve a reputation) rather than critical.
How do I find primary sources?
Try these databases when looking for primary source materials for your research:
Examples of primary sources from our collections