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Archival Research

What Is a Primary Source?

Primary sources are documents (or other kinds of materials) that were created in the past researchers can use in the present to gain insight into a specific time period. Primary sources provide ideas and evidence about events in the past. Scholars use the evidence found in primary sources to draw conclusions and construct narratives about the past.

Types of primary sources: Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, photographs, letters, oral history interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records, and meeting minutes can all be primary sources, as can objects such as pottery, furniture, clothing, and buildings.

Primary source documents exist as such only after the passing of time; they were not necessarily created to support historical analysis. They are often the day-to-day documents that support the functioning of a business or organization or an individual. Over time, these documents remain and can lend insight into specific time periods, or organizations' and individuals' histories. But it is important to note that this is their secondary, not original, function.

secondary source is a published work that presents arguments and conclusions about an event in the past based on primary source (or archival) research. Types of secondary sources include, for example, magazine articles, histories, criticisms, commentaries, encyclopedias, and textbooks.

Primary Sources in Books

You can find a large number primary source material or references to them in our SSU Library, using OneSearch. To begin, you should start with a broad search, for example, “native american”, and review your results for clues that the work may be a first-person account or record of an actual event.

Second, if you have too many results, try narrowing them by adding one of the keywords/subject headings listed below (note: this is not a comprehensive list). When doing a keyword search, add one of these terms to your search. For example:

Native American* AND sources

Examples of Library of Congress subheadings useful for locating primary source material:




holocaust AND personal narratives

speeches, addresses, etc

court records


description and travel

correspondence, reminiscences, etc.

civil rights AND interviews

oral history


church records


printed ephemera




passenger lists

street literature



art and photography

philosophy AND early works to 1800



early works to 1850



early works to 1900


pictorial works


Online Primary Sources Beyond SSU

These are some examples of primary source materials available online beyond SSU, just to give you a taste of opportunities that exist for research support.