UTS Library

Primary Sources

In this guide:

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are the raw materials of history created at the time historical events occurred or after the events in the form of memoirs, autobiographies, and oral histories.

They contain direct evidence and contemporary accounts from people directly involved in an event. They are different from secondary sources, accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience. For example, most history books are secondary sources, written long after historical events took place. But they can be a rich source of primary source materials, such as letters, diaries and direct quotes from people living in the past or excerpts from historical documents.  

The same document, or other piece of evidence, may be a primary source in one investigation and secondary in another, depending on the questions you ask.  The search for primary sources does not, therefore, automatically include or exclude any category of records or documents.

Primary sources may include:

Personal papers

Diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, family papers

Archives & Manuscript material

Business & personal correspondences; legal & financial documents of an institution or organisation; record of organisation; inventories; school or university records; yearbooks; minutes of meetings 

Letters/Correspondence

Letters, postcards, email, text messages

Documents

Birth/death, or marriage certificate; medical records, christening records, cemetery records; passenger lists & shipping documents; passports, visas, & naturalization papers; military enlistment or discharge papers; deeds, indenture, contracts, wills; constitutions, laws, court records, tax records, census records; Insurance certificates;  land record, parish records; patents

Visual materials

Photographs; video recordings/films of poetry, plays, speeches; news  film footage

Oral histories/accounts

Interviews, video memoirs; speeches, sermons

Artefacts/Relics

Clothing, uniforms, costumes, textiles; furniture & everyday objects such as kitchen tools, gadgets & household items; embroidery, jewelry; weavings, pottery; writing implements e.g., pens, nibs, inkwells, & c.; buildings, tombstones; coins, stamps; toys and games; trophies & medals; weapon & equipment

Art & Creative works

Paintings, drawings, sculpture; architectural drawings & plans/blueprints; prints

Printed ephemera

Advertisements, advertising brochures, pamphlets; handbills, playbills, posters, broadsides; trade catalogues, business/trading cards; programs of events & invitations, tickets; postcards, menus, calendars; book plates & jackets; election/political campaign ephemera & political tracts; timetables

Music

Manuscript music scores; musical instruments; sheet music; historical & contemporary sound recordings

Government documents

Reports, census data; records of government expenditure & finances; court reports; investigative reports

Legal sources

Hearings & debates of legislative bodies; testimony, official texts of laws, treatises; court decisions & law codes

Books & Journals

Published books & journals; newspapers & magazine clippings published at the time

Research Data

Public opinion polls; Scientific data & observations

Others

Statistics; scrapbooks; Maps, charts and diagrams

Adapted from the following source:
Yale University Library 2008, Primary Sources at Yale, accessed 10 December 2012.

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