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Primary Sources in History

What Are Primary Sources

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 may include letters, manuscripts, diaries, journals, newspapers, speeches, interviews, memoirs, documents produced by government agencies such as Congress or the Office of the President, photographs, audio recordings, moving pictures or video recordings, research data, and objects or artifacts such as works of art or ancient roads, buildings, tools, and weapons. 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.

Written in 2003 by the Instruction & Research Services Committee of the Reference and User Service Association History Section in the American Library Association.

Types of Primary Sources

Artifacts and objects

Books; manuscripts; monographs

Correspondence: letters; emails; listservs


Dissertations and thesis

Government documents: census data; reports; laws

Interviews and oral reports



Moving images: films, television programs


Printed ephemera: pamphlets, menus

Proceedings of meetings

Records of organizations

Serials: newspapers, periodicals; magazines; scholarly journals

Sound recordings


Works of art: novels, films, paitings; photographs; caricatures; comic strips; etc