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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

What is Lean Library?

A browser extension for access and assistance. You will spend less time figuring out if you have access to information and more time researching! 

How Lean Library Works?

When you access an article on a journal’s website or through a Google Search, the Lean Library extension recognizes OU Libraries’ e-resources then provides you with a GET ACCESS button that will authenticate your OU credentials for full text access. 

How to get Lean Library? 

Open the download link and add the extension to your browser. Select University of Oklahoma from the dropdown menu and click on Save.