UTS Library

Primary Sources: Characteristics

In this guide:

  • They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented.  Primary means “first”, “original” or “direct”.
  • They give us first-hand insights to the past.
  • They are actual records that have survived from the past. They are in their original form (diaries, letters, photos, etc.) usually without explanation or interpretation. 
  • Primary sources do not speak for themselves, they need to be interpreted.
  • Primary sources document events, people, and viewpoints of the time.
  • The nature and value of a source cannot be determined without reference to the topic and questions it is meant to answer. 
  • Provenance (chain of ownership) needs to be established for personal belongings. Date and authority of sources must be verified before using them in your assignment.  In other words, consider a document’s attribution (the name of the author or editor and how the document came into being) first.
  • You must remember that primary source material is not always objective source.
  • 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.
  • They may either be published or unpublished.