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Primary Sources


Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later. Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of whether they are available in original format, in microfilm/microfiche, in digital format, or in published format. Some examples of primary sources include:

  • Letters
  • Diaries
  • Interviews
  • Maps
  • Proclamations
  • Newspaper and magazine articles
  • Government documents
  • Autobiographies and memoirs
  • Works of art, including plays, poetry, films novels, and paintings
  • Artefacts, including clothing, furniture, and buildings
On the other hand, secondary sources interpret and analyze primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them. Some types of seconday sources include:
 
  • Textbooks
  • Encyclopedia or dictionary entries
  • Histories
  • Works of criticism or commentary
  • Documentaries
  • Biographies
  • Book reviews

Finding primary sources

Search for primary sources in CLUES, the Concordia catalogue:

The following subheadings are often found in the subject headings of records for published primary sources:

  • diaries
  • correspondence
  • interviews
  • personal narratives
  • pamphlets
  • sources
  • oral history

For example:

Women--Canada--History--Sources

OR

Nobility--England--Correspondence

OR

Rwanda--History--Civil War, 1994--Personal narratives

This means you can use any of those subheadings to do a keyword such in the catalogue, e.g., "rwanda AND personal narratives" or "england AND correspondence" or "women AND canada AND sources". 


Finding digitized primary sources

Evaluating primary sources
  1. When and by whom was this particular document written? What is the format of the document? Has the document been edited? Was the document published? If so, when and where and how? How do the layout, typographical details, and accompanying illustrations inform you about the purpose of the document, the author's historical and cultural position, and that of the intended audience?
  2. Who is the author, and why did he or she create the document? Why does the author choose to narrate the text in the manner chosen? Remember that the author of the text (i.e., the person who creates it) and the narrator of the text (i.e. the person who tells it) are not necessarily one and the same.
  3. Using clues from the document itself, its form, and its content, who is the intended audience for the text? Is the audience regional? National? A particular subset of "the American people"? How do you think the text was received by this audience? How might the text be received by those for whom it was NOT intended?
  4. How does the text reflect or mask such factors as the class, race, gender, ethnicity, or regional background of its creator/narrator? (Remember that "race" is a factor when dealing with cultural forms of people identified as "white," that "men" possess "gender," and that the North and Midwest are regions of local as well as national significance.)
  5. How does the author describe, grapple with, or ignore contemporaneous historical events? Why? Which cultural myths or ideologies does the author endorse or attack? Are there any oversights or "blind spots" that strike you as particularly salient? What cultural value systems does the writer/narrator embrace?
  6. From a literary perspective, does the writer employ any generic conventions? Use such devices as metaphor, simile, or other rhetorical devices?
  7. With what aspects of the text (content, form, style) can you most readily identify? Which seem most foreign to you? Why? Does the document remind you of contemporaneous or present-day cultural forms that you have encountered? How and why?
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