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What is a Primary Source?

A primary source is usually a record made at the time of an event by participants or by firsthand observers, but a primary source might also be created many years after the event in the form of an autobiography, memoir, oral history, published papers, etc. (For example, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln was originally published in 1953, long after Lincoln's death.)

Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • contemporary newspaper or magazine accounts
  • diaries, memoirs, or autobiographies
  • correspondence
  • congressional hearings
  • fliers, like this from the National Library of Medicine:
    poster saying to keep out of a house with smallpox
  • government reports
  • government/organizational archives
  • manuscripts (the papers of an individual or family)

Primary sources can be very different for different subjects. If you are writing a paper about an early female physician, for example, then her diary would be a primary source. If you are studying mid-twentieth century diplomatic history between the United States and Iraq, State Department records (such as Confidential U.S. State Department Central Files: Iraq, 1955-1959, available on Microfilm 498) would be a primary source.

If you are unsure what constitutes a primary source for your class, ask your instructor for some ideas. Also see this site from Yale University and this one from the University of Illinois for helpful hints on finding primary sources.

Citing Sources

Citation Manual

Citation Management Tools

Check Secondary Sources!

 A great way to find primary sources is to check the bibliographies, footnotes, endnotes, etc. of the secondary sources that you find.
Articles and books written by historians should cite primary sources, many of which may be available at OU or via our interlibrary loan service.

History and Area Studies Librarian

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Laurie Scrivener
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Lean Library

Lean Library

Lean Library is a browser extension that lets you take the library's online resources with you. If you are searching the general web for resources rather than the library's site, Lean Library will let you know if a resource you are looking at is available through OU libraries, or will directly link you to the ILL page (check out the Don't Buy It, Borrow It page in this guide to learn more about ILLs!). This helps you to avoid paywalls as you browse the web.