What is a primary source?

Primary sources contain the original information and are usually the place where the original information first appears. Primary information does not include later analysis or interpretation, rather it provides evidence used by historians to support an interpretation of the past.

Primary sources can include:

  • advertisements
  • archaeological artifacts
  • art
  • autobiographies
  • birth certificates
  • buildings
  • census material
  • congressional/parliamentary hearings and reports
  • county records
  • diaries
  • inscriptions
  • interviews
  • letters
  • manuscripts
  • memoirs
  • newspapers (during the time of your event)
  • oral histories
  • organizational minutes
  • photographs
  • posters
  • recordings
  • records of organizations
  • speeches
  • tombstones
  • treaties
  • voting records

Though many primary sources have been transcribed and published, primary sources are usually in the original language (though some have been translated into English). So, for example, most primary material from the Russian Revolution is in Russian rather than English.

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Primary source checklist

When attempting to determine if you're using a primary source, you may find these questions useful.

  • Who created it?
  • What was the original purpose of the source?
  • Did the creator have firsthand knowledge of the event or focus?
  • What biases or hidden agendas did the creator have?
  • Is the document meant to persuade or inform?
  • Was the source originally meant to be private or public?
  • When was the source created? Soon after the event or years later?

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How should I start looking for primary sources?

  • Bibliographies
    If you are not sure where to look for primary sources on your topic, you may find some listed in footnotes and bibliographies of secondary sources that you are using. Many times these secondary sources will refer to primary sources or at least make the search easier by providing important personal names, dates, titles, issuing agencies, etc.
  • Libraries Search
    When searching the libraries for primary sources add any of these keywords to your search:


    • diary
    • diaries
    • papers
    • personal narratives
    • journal
    • autobiography
  • News sources at the University of Minnesota
  • Archives at the University of Minnesota
    The University of Minnesota is home of many archives containing rare and unique research materials including documents, photos, videos, and other primary sources on a range of sources from science to medicine to immigration and computing. Some of these archives are in Elmer L. Andersen Library. Each collection's home page gives instructions for visiting and accessing archival collections and contact information for the unit and its staff. All collections are available to both university researchers and the public. Members of the public many visit the archives during the listed hours.

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Popular History Day topics at the University Archives

The University has primary source material for several History Day topics. It is recommended that you begin looking at the sources here after lots of background research has already been done. Some of these sources have been digitized, so just click on the links to view electronic versions of the original documents. Other sources are only available by going to the individual archive at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Contact the archive for information about viewing the sources in person.

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Primary Sources for History Day