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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 Illinois for helpful hints on finding primary sources.

Citing Sources

Citation Management Tools

Citation Manuals

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

Proxy URL

Some databases allow you to "bookmark" or "permalink" documents. If the link appears to have "ezproxy" and "lib" and "ou" an "edu" in it somewhere, it will probably work from off-campus. If not, add the following base URL text to the beginning of the "bookmark" or "permalink" URL:

The modified URL will take you to the library's login screen if you are not already logged into our website, or to the bookmarked document if you are on-campus or have logged into our website.