In the study of history as an academic discipline, a primary source (also called original source or evidence) is an artifact, a document, a recording, or other source of information that was created at the time under study. It serves as an original source of information about the topic. Similar definitions are used in library science, and other areas of scholarship, although different fields have somewhat different definitions. In journalism, a primary source can be a person with direct knowledge of a situation, or a document written by such a person.
Primary sources are distinguished from secondary sources, which cite, comment on, or build upon primary sources. Generally, accounts written after the fact with the benefit (and possible distortions) of hindsight are secondary. A secondary source may also be a primary source depending on how it is used. For example, a memoir would be considered a primary source in research concerning its author or about his or her friends characterized within it, but the same memoir would be a secondary source if it were used to examine the culture in which its author lived. "Primary" and "secondary" should be understood as relative terms, with sources categorized according to specific historical contexts and what is being studied.:118–246
The significance of source classification
History and historiography
In scholarly writing, an important objective of classifying sources is to determine their independence and reliability. In contexts such as historical writing, it is almost always advisable to use primary sources and that "if none are available, it is only with great caution that [the author] may proceed to make use of secondary sources." Sreedharan believes that primary sources have the most direct connection to the past and that they "speak for themselves" in ways that cannot be captured through the filter of secondary sources.
In scholarly writing, the objective of classifying sources is to determine the independence and reliability of sources. Though the terms primary source and secondary source originated in historiography as a way to trace the history of historical ideas, they have been applied to many other fields. For example, these ideas may be used to trace the history of scientific theories, literary elements and other information that is passed from one author to another.
In scientific literature, a primary source is the original publication of a scientist's new data, results and theories. In political history, primary sources are documents such as official reports, speeches, pamphlets, posters, or letters by participants, official election returns and eyewitness accounts. In the history of ideas or intellectual history, the main primary sources are books, essays and letters written by intellectuals; these intellectuals may include historians, whose books and essays are therefore considered primary sources for the intellectual historian, though they are secondary sources in their own topical fields. In religious history, the primary sources are religious texts and descriptions of religious ceremonies and rituals.
A study of cultural history could include fictional sources such as novels or plays. In a broader sense primary sources also include artifacts like photographs, newsreels, coins, paintings or buildings created at the time. Historians may also take archaeological artifacts and oral reports and interviews into consideration. Written sources may be divided into three types.
- Narrative sources or literary sources tell a story or message. They are not limited to fictional sources (which can be sources of information for contemporary attitudes) but include diaries, films, biographies, leading philosophical works and scientific works.
- Diplomatic sources include charters and other legal documents which usually follow a set format.
- Social documents are records created by organizations, such as registers of births and tax records.
In historiography, when the study of history is subject to historical scrutiny, a secondary source becomes a primary source. For a biography of a historian, that historian's publications would be primary sources. Documentary films can be considered a secondary source or primary source, depending on how much the filmmaker modifies the original sources.
The Lafayette College Library, provides a synopsis of primary sources in several areas of study:
"The definition of a primary source varies depending upon the academic discipline and the context in which it is used.
- In the humanities, a primary source could be defined as something that was created either during the time period being studied or afterward by individuals reflecting on their involvement in the events of that time.
- In the social sciences, the definition of a primary source would be expanded to include numerical data that has been gathered to analyze relationships between people, events, and their environment.
- In the natural sciences, a primary source could be defined as a report of original findings or ideas. These sources often appear in the form of research articles with sections on methods and results."
Finding primary sources
Although many documents that are primary sources remain in private hands, the usual location for them is an archive. These can be public or private. Documents relating to one area are usually spread over a large number of different archives. These can be distant from the original source of the document. For example, the Huntington Library in California houses a large number of documents from the United Kingdom.
In the US, digital copies of primary sources can be retrieved from a number of places. The Library of Congress maintains several online Digital Collections where they can be retrieved. Examples of these are American Memory and the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC). The National Archives and Records Administration also has such a tool, called Access to Archival Databases (AAD).
In the UK, the National Archives provides a consolidated search of its own catalogue and a wide variety of other archives listed on the Access to Archives index. Digital copies of various classes of documents at the National Archives (including wills) are available from DocumentsOnline. Most of the available documents relate to England and Wales. Some digital copies of primary sources are available from the National Archives of Scotland. Many County Record Offices collections are included in Access to Archives, while others have their own on-line catalogues. Many County Record Offices will supply digital copies of documents.
Using primary sources
History as an academic discipline is based on primary sources, as evaluated by the community of scholars, who report their findings in books, articles and papers. Arthur Marwick says "Primary sources are absolutely fundamental to history." Ideally, a historian will use all available primary sources that were created by the people involved at the time being studied. In practice some sources have been destroyed, while others are not available for research. Perhaps the only eyewitness reports of an event may be memoirs, autobiographies, or oral interviews taken years later. Sometimes the only evidence relating to an event or person in the distant past was written or copied decades or centuries later. Manuscripts that are sources for classical texts can be copies of documents, or fragments of copies of documents. This is a common problem in classical studies, where sometimes only a summary of a book or letter has survived. Potential difficulties with primary sources have the result that history is usually taught in schools using secondary sources.
Historians studying the modern period with the intention of publishing an academic article prefer to go back to available primary sources and to seek new (in other words, forgotten or lost) ones. Primary sources, whether accurate or not, offer new input into historical questions and most modern history revolves around heavy use of archives and special collections for the purpose of finding useful primary sources. A work on history is not likely to be taken seriously as scholarship if it only cites secondary sources, as it does not indicate that original research has been done.
However, primary sources – particularly those from before the 20th century – may have hidden challenges. "Primary sources, in fact, are usually fragmentary, ambiguous and very difficult to analyse and interpret." Obsolete meanings of familiar words and social context are among the traps that await the newcomer to historical studies. For this reason, the interpretation of primary texts is typically taught as part of an advanced college or postgraduate history course, although advanced self-study or informal training is also possible.
The following questions are asked about primary sources:
- What is the tone?
- Who is the intended audience?
- What is the purpose of the publication?
- What assumptions does the author make?
- What are the bases of the author's conclusions?
- Does the author agree or disagree with other authors of the subject?
- Does the content agree with what you know or have learned about the issue?
- Where was the source made? (questions of systemic bias)
Strengths and weaknesses of primary sources
In many fields and contexts, such as historical writing, it is almost always advisable to use primary sources if possible, and that "if none are available, it is only with great caution that [the author] may proceed to make use of secondary sources." In addition, primary sources avoid the problem inherent in secondary sources, where each new author may distort and put their own spin on the findings of prior cited authors.
"A history, whose author draws conclusions from other than primary sources or secondary sources actually based on primary sources, is by definition fiction and not history at all."— Kameron Searle
However, a primary source is not necessarily more of an authority or better than a secondary source. There can be bias and tacit unconscious views which twist historical information.
"Original material may be ... prejudiced, or at least not exactly what it claims to be."— David Iredale
These errors may be corrected in secondary sources, which are often subjected to peer review, can be well documented, and are often written by historians working in institutions where methodological accuracy is important to the future of the author's career and reputation. Historians consider the accuracy and objectiveness of the primary sources they are using and historians subject both primary and secondary sources to a high level of scrutiny. A primary source such as a journal entry (or the online version, a blog), at best, may only reflect one individual's opinion on events, which may or may not be truthful, accurate, or complete.
Participants and eyewitnesses may misunderstand events or distort their reports (deliberately or unconsciously) to enhance their own image or importance. Such effects can increase over time, as people create a narrative that may not be accurate. For any source, primary or secondary, it is important for the researcher to evaluate the amount and direction of bias. As an example, a government report may be an accurate and unbiased description of events, but it can be censored or altered for propaganda or cover-up purposes. The facts can be distorted to present the opposing sides in a negative light. Barristers are taught that evidence in a court case may be truthful, but it may be distorted to support (or oppose) the position of one of the parties.
Many sources can be considered either primary or secondary, depending on the context in which they are examined. Moreover, the distinction between primary and secondary sources is subjective and contextual, so that precise definitions are difficult to make. A book review, when it contains the opinion of the reviewer about the book rather than a summary of the book, becomes a primary source.
If a historical text discusses old documents to derive a new historical conclusion, it is considered to be a primary source for the new conclusion. Examples in which a source can be both primary and secondary include an obituary or a survey of several volumes of a journal counting the frequency of articles on a certain topic.
Whether a source is regarded as primary or secondary in a given context may change, depending upon the present state of knowledge within the field. For example, if a document refers to the contents of a previous but undiscovered letter, that document may be considered "primary", since it is the closest known thing to an original source; but if the letter is later found, it may then be considered "secondary"
In some instances, the reason for identifying a text as the "primary source" may devolve from the fact that no copy of the original source material exists, or that it is the oldest extant source for the information cited.
Historians must occasionally contend with forged documents that purport to be primary sources. These forgeries have usually been constructed with a fraudulent purpose, such as promulgating legal rights, supporting false pedigrees, or promoting particular interpretations of historic events. The investigation of documents to determine their authenticity is called diplomatics.
For centuries, Popes used the forged Donation of Constantine to bolster the Papacy's secular power. Among the earliest forgeries are false Anglo-Saxon charters, a number of 11th- and 12th-century forgeries produced by monasteries and abbeys to support a claim to land where the original document had been lost or never existed. One particularly unusual forgery of a primary source was perpetrated by Sir Edward Dering, who placed false monumental brasses in a parish church. In 1986, Hugh Trevor-Roper "authenticated" the Hitler Diaries, which were later proved to be forgeries. Recently, forged documents have been placed within the UK National Archives in the hope of establishing a false provenance. However, historians dealing with recent centuries rarely encounter forgeries of any importance.:22–25
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[T]he distinction is not a sharp one. Since a source is only a source in a specific historical context, the same source object can be both a primary or secondary source according to what it is used for.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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it is through the primary sources that the past indisputably imposes its reality on the historian. That this imposition is basic in any understanding of the past is clear from the rules that documents should not be altered, or that any material damaging to a historian's argument or purpose should not be left out or suppressed. These rules mean that the sources or the texts of the past have an integrity and that they do indeed 'speak for themselves', and that they are necessary constraints through which past reality imposes itself on the historian.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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The analysis of secondary source information is problematic. The further an investigator is from the primary source, the more distorted the information may be. Again, each new person may put his or her spin on the findings.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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- Primary sources repositories
- Primary Sources from World War One and Two: War-letters.com Database of mailed letters to and from soldiers during major world conflicts from the Napoleonic Wars to World War Two.
- Fold3.com – Over 60,000,000 Primary Source Documents created by Ancestry.com
- A listing of over 5000 websites describing holdings of manuscripts, archives, rare books, historical photographs, and other primary sources from the University of Idaho.
- Find primary sources in the collections of major research libraries using ArchiveGrid
- Shapell Manuscript Foundation Digitalized Primary Sources and Historical Artifacts from 1786 – present
- Sacred Texts.com A collection of religious texts and books from the Internet Sacred Text Archive
- All sources repositories
- Wikisource – The Free Library – the Wikimedia project that collects, edits, and catalogs all source texts
- Essays and descriptions of primary, secondary and other sources
- "Research Using Primary Sources" from the University of Maryland Libraries (accessed 16 Jul 2013)
- "How to distinguish between primary and secondary sources" from the University of California, Santa Cruz Library
- Joan of Arc: Primary Sources Series – Example of a publication focusing on primary source documents- the Historical Association of Joan of Arc Studies
- Finding historical primary sources from the University of California, Berkeley library
- "Primary versus secondary sources" from the Bowling Green State University library
- Finding primary sources in world history from the Center for History and New Media, George Mason University
- Guide to Terminology used when describing archival and other primary source materials on Archivopedia
- Thehistorysite.org Links to many online history archival sources.