UTS Library

Primary Sources: Strengths/Weakness

In this guide:


Examples include: diaries; letters; birth/death, or marriage certificates; deeds; contracts, constitutions, laws, court records; tax records; census records; wills, inventories; treaties; report cards; medical records; passenger lists; passports; visas; naturalization papers; military enlistment or discharge papers.


  • Provide information on the “who, what, where, when, why, and how” of an event.
  • Provide written, printed, or graphic information.
  • Purpose of the communication or transaction is often clear.
  • May indicate the social and economic status of the author.
  • May offer insight into the emotional state of the author.
  • Can stimulate the personal involvement of the reader.


  • May not be a thoroughly objective source; may not consider other views or perspectives on the same event(s).
  • The identity of the author may be unclear (especially true in the case of government documents).
  • The author is usually no longer living and thus cannot be consulted for verification.
  • May be difficult to read (handwriting may be difficult to decipher); words or phrases may be unfamiliar and their meanings may have changed over time.
  • Documents must be evaluated in conjunction with other evidence to determine whether they present information that is exceptional or conforms to previously established patterns.


A visual record obtained through photography or painting.


  • Visual record of a particular moment in time.
  • Conveys a variety of details about people, places, objects, and events.
  • Conveys information about everyday life and behaviour that is best communicated in visual terms (hair and clothing styles, interior design).
  • Sometimes provides evidence of the photographer or painter’s attitude.
  • Important to the study of people who did not leave many written records.
  • Can stimulate the personal involvement of the viewer.
  • Can be used to stimulate the memory of an oral history informant.


  • Not a complete or objective source: the image that serves as the lasting record may not equate directly with the reality of the event itself.
  • The relationship of the photographer or painter to his or her subject is not always clear.
  • One must consider the bias or perspective of the photographer or painter, including:

– the choice of subject;
– the choice of timing;
– the subject matter that a person present at the event chose to record;
– whether the people or objects have been manipulated by the photographer or painter.

  • The people, place, date, and photographer or painter are often not identified.
  • The emotions and thoughts of those involved generally are not evident.
  • Information from this kind of source is often suggestive rather than definitive; photographs and paintings must be studied in conjunction with other evidence, i.e., documents and oral histories, to determine if the information is unusual or part of a larger pattern.

Oral History

The record of an individual’s (informant’s) reminiscences, accounts, and interpretations of the past in his or her own spoken words obtained through planned interview(s) and preserved through the use of audio or video tape, film, or written transcription.


  • Personalizes history by recording an individual’s remembrances (or opinions) about their life or an event in which they were involved.
  • Provides information about a topic or time period that may otherwise lack documentation in written or archival records.
  • Often conveys emotion clearly.
  • Contains spontaneity and candour not always present in a personally written account.
  • May contain unusual dialect or speech patterns.
  • Often informant is living and may be consulted for clarification or additional information.


  • How accurate is oral history? Memory of the informant is fallible.
  • Self-serving motives of the story teller.
  • The bias, objective, or the relationship of the interviewer to those being interviewed must be considered.
  • Informant’s testimony may not be consistent from one interview to the next.
  • Interviewer’s questions may intentionally or unintentionally influence the informant’s response.

The preceding section is taken from the following source:
Smithsonian Institute 1997, Lesson Plan One: Evaluating Historical Sources, accessed 8 January 2013.