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Primary Sources

What is a primary source?

  • A document, text, map, image, or artifact that provides evidence about the past that was created during the time period being studied OR at a later date by a participant or eyewitness to the event.
  • A primary source may be unique (an original letter), or it may be reproduced, copied, published, translated, or be in physical or digital form.
  • Government documents are a specialized type of primary source, providing direct evidence of the functions, policies, and actions of a given government.
  • A primary sources has not been interpreted by a non-observer or non-participant’s account or later observation.
    • For example, the Declaration of Independence is a primary source, but a book that discusses the impact of the Declaration of Independence is not a primary source.
  • Note: While primary sources are valuable in research, they may not always be accurate.
  • Some examples of primary source formats include:
Archival Materials Manuscript Materials Photographs
Audio Recordings Video Recordings Films
Journals Letters Diaries
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?

  • Provide a snapshot of history on the topics we're interested in. These primary sources, be they documents or artifacts, stand alone, without context or interpretation.
  • Give us a chance to see firsthand something from another time period. Since we're looking at the object or document itself, we are the primary interpreters of the meaning embodied in that item - helping us realize that different eyes can see different meaning and significance in any given object or document.
  • It's up to us to analyze the document or artifact, set it into the context we know (other related items we've seen or read, other information we have about the time period, and what we know about the person or people who created the document), and come to a conclusion about its significance.

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?

  • The USMA Library Circulating Collection provides access to countless Primary Sources, both in our print collection and through our subscription databases.
  • Remember that when you are looking for primary sources, you're looking for documents that supply firsthand or original information: a treaty, the text of a law, a transcript of a trial or hearing, the diary or memoir written by someone involved in your events, etc.
  • When searching for a Primary Source, brainstorm some keywords based on what you already know, being as broad as possible. Try using the names of people involved in your event, groups who might have been influential, or the name of the event itself.
    • For example, let’s suppose you’re interested in writing about operations on Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg. Some possible names or keywords to try are: ‘Chamberlin, Joshua’ (search as "Author"), and ‘20th Maine,’ '15th Alabama,' or 'Little Round Top' (in quotes, as "Keyword").
    • You can also search for types of resources by utilizing the "Keyword" search command; try 'personal narratives Gettysburg' or 'Regimental Histories Gettysburg' without quotes.
  • USMA Archives & Special Collections is a great place to find primary information sources that provide a unique insight into the events or people you are researching.
    • The Special Collection consists of rare, unique, unusual, or fragile materials that relate to the mission of the USMA Library and the Academy, or which were created by or donated by a graduate of West Point.
    • The Archives include materials related to the history of the Military Academy, including information about the curriculum over time, application papers, textbooks, information about faculty members and Superintendents, and demerit books, just to name a few of the varied types of materials held here.
    • These materials do NOT circulate, but you view them. During the Academic year, you can visit the West Point Room during open hours, and ask a staff member what information might be available on your topic. They will be happy to help you find a relevant primary source.
    • You can also search Scout for items in the Special Collection and Archives. On the left side of the Scout result page, choose to limit by collection and click “Special Collection” to find only those items. Visit the West Point Room or contact our Special Collection and Archives staff to view the item(s).
  • USMA Digital Collections: Search our Digital Collection, which collects and displays items from our unique resources collection that have been digitized. These items include Civil War maps, maps of West Point, Class Albums and Class rings, and historic photographs of West Point.

Try these databases when looking for primary source materials for your research:

Examples of primary sources from our collections

  • Special Collection
    • Memorial of Gen. J.F.K. Mansfield, United States Army, who fell in battle at Sharpsburg, Md., Sept. 17, 1862 
      • Addresses at the funeral of General Mansfield, in Middletown, Conn., September 23, 1862: Mr. Taylor’s address. Mr. Jacson’s address. Mr. Dixon’s address. –Rev. Mr. Taylor’s discourse on the life and character of General Mansfield, September 28, 1862.
    • Ulysses S. Grant papers.
      • Summary: Letter to cousin McKinstry Griffith telling of cadet life at West Point, 1840; and more


  • Archives
    • Assembly / Association of Graduates, U.S.M.A 
      • The Alumni magazine of West Point, published by the Association of Graduates (also available through the Digital Collection.
    • Memorandum Book, by John Pitman, USMA 1867 
      • Ordnance officer; Assistant Instructor, USMA, 1870-72. Memorandum Book, with cadet demerits and class standing, 1864-65.
    • Camp Buckner: cadet activities (West Point, N.Y.: United States Military Academy, 1966) 
      • Cadet life and military training at Camp Buckner, USMA.


Primary Sources in the Sciences

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