Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories. Primary sources include manuscripts, diaries, letters, rare books, historical photographs, first-hand accounts or documentary sources on a subject, person, event or issue. These sources serve as the raw material to interpret the past, and when they are used along with previous interpretations by historians, they provide the resources necessary for historical research.
Archives and Manuscripts consist of original unpublished, historical and contemporary material. The University of Minnesota is home to many archives and manuscripts (mss) collections containing rare and unique research materials including documents, photos, videos, and other primary sources on a range of sources from science and medicine to performing arts, children's literature, immigration and computing.
Primary sources in reproduction For some levels of research it is acceptable and appropriate to use primary sources that have been reproduced and published. A few examples include microfilmed newspaper articles, published diaries, and scanned images of original documents published in book form. You can search MNCAT to locate this type of material in our libraries.
Q. Is it a primary source if it's on the web?
A. Electronic versions of primary sources are being added to the web at an increasing rate. They may be freely accessible, or available via Libraries with licensed subscription access. If your assignment or research allows for use of original materials in facsimile or reproduction, it's acceptable to use qualified online resources.
"An electronic version of a primary source can be either a scanned image of the original document (a facsimile) or an ASCII text or word processed version, created by re-keying the content of the document or by using optical character recognition (OCR) to convert the image of the document into text. -- from ALA/RUSA's Using Primary Sources on the Web.
Primary sources are distinguished from secondary sources, which are produced some time after an event, and serve to analyze or interpret primary sources.
Archives on Campus
Check out their page on Using the Archives and Special Collections, which includes a Finding Aids search box.
Other Archives Collections
On the sidebar of the Archives and Special Collections page, you will see links to other archives collections in the Twin Cities, and in national and international collections.
Online Primary Sources
- The University of Minnesota Libraries have purchased access to licensed online primary source collections. These are not freely accessible. To access many of these resources you must be affiliated with the University or be using a computer in one of the University Libraries on the Twin Cities campus. See our A-Z list at:
- Evaluating Free Online Primary Sources
- Before relying on the information provided by a website, examine and understand the purpose of the website. While the purpose might not affect the accuracy of the primary source material it contains, it might indicate that the material has been altered or manipulated in some way to change or influence its meaning. Sometimes sites use primary source material to persuade the reader to a particular point of view, distorting the contents in obvious or subtle ways. Also, sites can use primary source material haphazardly, without appropriately choosing, inspecting, or citing the work.
- In general, look for websites with a non-biased, balanced approach to presenting sources. Websites produced by educational or governmental institution usually are more reliable than personal websites. For more guidance, visit Using Primary Sources on the Web (ALA/RUSA)
Searching the Libraries Catalog (MNCAT)
MNCAT lists many types of primary sources: original archival materials*, print materials with the original texts, printed facsimiles, and online resources that link to digital facsimiles. You can recognize such an item if the word "sources" appears in the subject. That word and certain others, especially when searched as a subject keyword, will help narrow your search results to primary sources.
*Archival materials on campus are searchable in more depth via this Finding Aids page.
When searching our collection, go to MNCAT Advanced Search and enter your keywords, plus the subject term source to your search:
- personal narratives
NewspapersNewspaper articles written at the time of an event can contain useful images, reporting and opinions expressed by contemporaries. Our collections include historical newspapers in a range of formats, print, microfilm and online.
Government PublicationsGovernment publications provide a primary source snapshot of what was happening in the United States and other countries at a specific time in history or around a particular event. They also reflect the changes in law and policies that affect how our society moves forward from these happenings. The Government Publications collections provide primary documents of the United States, Minnesota, countries of the world, and intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations.
Other FormatsDepending on the focus of your research, there are other formats that may serve as primary source material. Here are some examples:
- archaeological artifacts
- birth certificates
- census material
- congressional/parliamentary hearings and reports
- county records
- documentary photographs
- oral histories
- organizational minutes
- records of organizations
- voting records
The top of the Wilson Library page has a Subject Guide menu for fields in the arts, humanities, social sciences and professional programs. Each list varies and may include recommended primary source databases or other resources in that field. Even though a list may not include a primary source section, the librarian for that subject area can suggest resources and/or strategies for your topic. Consult the complete list of subject librarians if you need assistance in other areas of research.