Primary source

Primary source

Primary source [ [ Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources, UM Libraries] ] [ [ JCU - Primary, Secondary & Tertiary Sources] ] is a term used in a number of disciplines. In historiography, a primary source (also called original source) is a document, recording or other source of information that was created at the time being studied, by an authoritative source, usually one with direct personal knowledge of the events being described. It serves as an original source of information about the topic. Primary sources are distinguished from secondary sources, which often cite, comment on, or build upon primary sources. [Handlin (1954) 118-246]

The Danish historian Olden-Jørgensen (2001, p. 74) writes:

Another of Kristian Erslev's rules of thumb is to differentiate between primary and secondary sources. This differentiation should not be mixed up with the English expression "primary sources" and "secondary sources", which designates (printed and non-printed) sources, respective (secondary) literature. Neither should it be mixed up with the classification into firsthand and second hand witnesses, i.e. eye- and ear-witnesses on the one hand and on the other hand others, which have their knowledge from firsthand witnesses, from other secondhand witnesses or who have copied others writings.
A "primary source" is a source which are not based on any other existing or kept source (but perhaps on lost sources). (Translated from Danish by BH)

Similar (but not identical) definitions are used in library science, and other areas of scholarship. A primary source could be a first-handed source from the past including diaries or artifacts. Primary sources have been described as those sources closest to the origin of the information or idea under study. [ [ "Primary, secondary and tertiary sources"] ] [ [ "Library Guides: Primary, secondary and tertiary sources"] ] Primary sources have been said to provide researchers with "direct, unmediated information about the object of study." [Citation
first1=Margaret Steig
title=Historians and Their Information Sources
pages=400–25, at 416 n.3
journal=College & Research Libraries
, citing U.S. Dept. of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics (2003), "Occupational Outlook Handbook"; Citation
contribution=History: Theories and Methods
editor-first1=Neil J.
editor-first2=Paul B.
title=International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavior Sciences
] They may contain original research or new information not previously published elsewhere. [Citation
title=The literature search: a library-based model for information skills instruction
journal=Library Review
("A primary source is defined here as a source containing new information authored by the original researcher(s) and not previously published elsewhere.").
] They serve as an original source of information or new ideas about the topic. "Primary" and "secondary", however, are relative terms, and a given source may be classified as primary or secondary, depending on how it is used. [Citation
title=An Introduction to the Historiography of Science
publisher=Cambridge University Press
(" [T] he distinction is not a sharp one. Since a source is only a source in a specific historical context, the same source object can be both a primary or secondary source according to what it is used for."); Citation
title=Future Historians: Their Quest for Information
journal=College & Research Libraries
pages=245–259, at 253
(" [T] he same document can be a primary or a secondary source depending on the particular analysis the historian is doing"); Citation
title=Historical research in literacy
journal=Reading Online
(" [A] source may be primary or secondary, depending on what the researcher is looking for.").

ource classification

Many sources can be considered either primary and secondary, depending on the context in which they are used. [Harvnb|Kragh|1989|p=121.] Moreover, the distinction between "primary" and "secondary" sources is subjective and contextual, [Harvnb|Dalton|Charnigo|2004|p=419 n.18.] so that precise definitions are difficult to make. [Harvnb|Delgadillo|Lynch|1999|p=253.] For example, if a historical text discusses old documents to derive a new historical conclusion, it is considered to be a primary source for the new conclusion, but a secondary source of information found in the old documents.Fact|date=January 2008 Other examples in which a source can be both primary and secondary include an obituary [Citation
title=History of Medicine: A Scandalously Short Introduction
publisher=University of Toronto Press
] or a survey of several volumes of a journal counting the frequency of articles on a certain topic. [Id. at 366.]

Whether a source is regarded as primary or secondary in a given context may change, depending upon the present state of knowledge within the field. [Citation
title=Primary Source by Primary Source? On the Role of Epidemics in New World Depopulation
pages=292–312, at 292
(" [T] he term 'primary' inevitably carries a relative meaning insofar as it defines those pieces of information that stand in closest relationship to an event or process "in the present state of our knowledge". Indeed, in most instances the very nature of a primary source tells us that it is actually derivative.… [H] istorians have no choice but to regard certain of the available sources as 'primary' since they are as near to truly original sources as they can now secure.").
] For example, if a document refers to the contents of a previous but undiscovered letter, that document may be considered "primary", since it is the closest known thing to an original source, but if the letter is later found, it may then be considered "secondary". [Harvnb|Henige|1986|p=292.]

For some authors, the primary nature of a source may also derive from the fact that no copy of an original source material exists, and it is the oldest extant source for the information cited.

Another use is: In the cases in which a printed version of a document is made from an electronic version the electronic version may be termed the primary document.

first=Jens Bruun
title=Text and History: Historiography and the Study of the Biblical Text
publication-place=Winona Lake
; Citation
first2=Charles Peter
first3=Robin Dartrey
title=The Seismicity of Egypt, Arabia, and the Red Sea
publisher=Cambridge University Press
("The same chronicle can be a primary source for the period contemporary with the author, a secondary source for earlier material derived from previous works, but also a primary source when these earlier works have not survived.").

The significance of source classification in various disciplines

History and historiography

The delineation of sources as primary and secondary first arose in the field of historiography, as historians attempted to identify and classify the sources of historical writing.Fact|date=November 2007 In scholarly writing, an important objective of classifying sources is to determine the independence and reliability of sources. [Helge (1989), p. 121.] In contexts such as historical writing, it is almost always advisable to use primary sources if possible, and that "if none are available, it is only with great caution that [the author] may proceed to make use of secondary sources." [Citationjkjk
first=Carlo M.
title=Between Two Cultures:An Introduction to Economic History
publisher=W.W. Norton & Co.
] Many historians believe that primary sources have the most objective connection to the past, and that they "speak for themselves" in ways that cannot be captured through the filter of secondary sources. [Citation
title=A Textbook of Historiography, 500 B.C. to A.D. 2000
publisher=Orient Longman
} ("it is through the primary sources that the past indisputably imposes its reality on the historian. That this imposition is basic in any understanding of the past is clear from the rules that documents should not be altered, or that any material damaging to a historian's argument or purpose should not be left out or suppressed. These rules mean that the sources or the texts of the past have an integrity and that they do indeed 'speak for themselves', and that they are necessary constraints through which past reality imposes itself on the historian.").

Many scholars have commented on the difficulty in producing secondary source narratives from the "raw data" which makes up the past. Historian/philosopher Hayden White has written extensively on the ways in which the rhetorical strategies by which historians construct narratives about the past, and what sorts of assumptions about time, history, and events are embedded in the very structure of the historical narrative. In any case, the question of the exact relation between "historical facts" and the content of "written history" has been a topic of discussion among historians since at least the nineteenth century, when much of the modern profession of history came into being.Fact|date=November 2007

As a general rule, modern historians prefer to go back to primary sources, if available, as well as seeking new ones, because primary sources, whether accurate or not, offer new input into historical questions, and most modern history revolves around heavy use of archives for the purpose of finding useful primary sources. On the other hand, most undergraduate research projects are limited to secondary source material.Fact|date=November 2007

Other fields

In scholarly writing, the objective of classifying sources is to determine the independence and reliability of sources. [Helge (1989), p. 121.] Though the terms "primary source" and "secondary source" originated in historiographyFact|date=August 2008 as a way to trace the history of historical ideas, it has been applied to many other fields. For example, this idea may be used to trace the history of scientific theories, literary elements, and other information that is passes from one author to another.

In scientific literature, a primary source is the original publication of a scientist's new data, results, and theories. In political history, primary sources reflect documents such as official reports, speeches, pamphlets, posters, or letters by participants, official election returns, and eyewitness accounts. In the history of ideas or intellectual history, the main primary sources are books, essays and letters written by intellectuals.

A study of cultural history could include fictional sources such as novels or plays. In a broader sense primary sources also include physical objects like photographs, newsreels, coins, paintings or buildings created at the time. Historians may also take archaeological artifacts and oral reports and interviews into consideration. Written sources may be divided into three main types. [Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier, "From Reliable Sources", pp. 20-22.]

*Narrative sources or literary sources tell a story or message. They are not limited to fictional sources (which can be sources of information for contemporary attitudes), but include diaries, films, biographies, leading philosophical works, scientific works, and so on.
*Diplomatic sources include charters and other legal documents which usually follow a set format.
*Social documents are records created by organizations, such as registers of births, tax records, and so on.

In the study of historiography, when the study of history is itself subject to historical scrutiny, a secondary source becomes a primary source. For a biography of a historian, that historian's publications would be primary sources. Documentary films can be considered a secondary source or primary source, depending on how much the filmmaker modifies the original sources. [Cripps (1995)]

The Lafayette College Library, for example, provides the following synopsis of primary sources in several basic areas of study:

"The definition of a primary source varies depending upon the academic discipline and the context in which it is used.
*In the humanities, a primary source could be defined as something that was created either during the time period being studied or afterward by individuals reflecting on their involvement in the events of that time.
*In the social sciences, the definition of a primary source would be expanded to include numerical data that has been gathered to analyze relationships between people, events, and their environment.
*In the natural sciences, a primary source could be defined as a report of original findings or ideas. These sources often appear in the form of research articles with sections on methods and results." [ [ "Primary Sources: what are they?", Lafayette College Library] ]

Finding primary sources

Although many documents that are primary sources remain in private hands, the usual location for them is an archive. These can be public or private. Documents relating to one area are usually spread over a large number of different archives. These can be distant from the original source of the document. For example, the Huntington Library in California houses a large number of documents from the United Kingdom.

In the US, digital primary sources can be retrieved from a number of places. The Library of Congress maintains several online Digital Collections where they can be retrieved. Examples of these are [ American Memory] and the [ Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC)] . The National Archives and Records Administration also has such a tool, called [ Access to Archival Databases (AAD)] .

In the UK, the National Archives provides a consolidated search of its own catalogue and a wide variety of other archives listed on the Access to Archives index. Digital copies of various classes of documents at the National Archives (including wills) are available from DocumentsOnline. Most of the available documents relate to England and Wales. Some digital copies of primary sources are available from the National Archives of Scotland. Many County Record Offices collections are included in Access to Archives, while others have their own on-line catalogues. Many County Record Offices will supply digital copies of documents.

In the Republic of Ireland, available digital documents include the censuses of 1901 and 1911 which are available from the National Archives of Ireland.

In Australia, the National Archives of Australia has digitised a number of classes of records and will produce digitised copies of suitable documents on demand.

Using primary sources

History as an academic discipline is based on primary sources, as evaluated by the community of scholars, who report their findings in books, articles and papers. Arthur Marwick says "Primary sources are absolutely fundamental to history.". ["Primary sources; handle with care" in Drake and Finnegan ( 1997)] Ideally, a historian will use all available primary sources created by the people involved, at the time being studied. In practice some sources have been destroyed, while others are not available for research. Perhaps the only eyewitness reports of an event may be memoirs, autobiographies, or oral interviews taken years later. Sometimes the only documents relating to an event or person in the distant past were written decades or centuries later. This is a common problem in classical studies, where sometimes only a summary of a book has survived. Potential difficulties with primary sources have the result that history is usually taught in schools using secondary sources.

Historians studying the modern period with the intention of publishing an academic article prefer to go back to available primary sources and to seek new (in other words, forgotten or lost) ones. Primary sources, whether accurate or not, offer new input into historical questions and most modern history revolves around heavy use of archives and special collections for the purpose of finding useful primary sources. A work on history is not likely to be taken seriously as scholarship if it only cites secondary sources, as it does not indicate that original research has been done. [ Handlin (1954)]

However, primary sources - particularly those from before the 20th century - may have hidden challenges. "Primary sources, in fact, are usually fragmentary, ambiguous and very difficult to analyse and interpret." [ Marwick, "Primary sources; handle with care" in Drake and Finnegan (1997)] Obsolete meanings of familiar words and social context are among the traps that await the newcomer to historical studies. For this reason, The interpretation of primary texts is typically taught as part of an advanced college or postgraduate history course, however advanced self-study or informal training is also possible.

The following questions are asked about primary sources:
* What is the tone?
* Who is the intended audience?
* What is the purpose of the publication?
* What assumptions does the author make?
* What are the bases of the author's conclusions?
* Does the author agree or disagree with other authors of the subject?
* Does the content agree with what you know or have learned about the issue?
* Where was the source made? (questions of systemic bias)

In education, these are sometimes known as the five W's - who, what, when, where and why

trengths and weaknesses of primary sources

In many fields and contexts, such as historical writing, it is almost always advisable to use primary sources if possible, and that "if none are available, it is only with great caution that [the author] may proceed to make use of secondary sources." [Citation
first=Carlo M.
title=Between Two Cultures:An Introduction to Economic History
publisher=W.W. Norton & Co.
] In addition, primary sources avoid the problem inherent in secondary sources, where each new author may distort and put their own spin on the findings of prior cited authors. [Citation
first=Jeffrey Ian
title=Taking Stock of Research Methods and Analysis on Oppositional Political Terrorism
journal=The American Sociologist
("The analysis of secondary source information is problematic. The further an investigator is from the primary source, the more distorted the information may be. Again, each new person may put his or her spin on the findings.").
] However, A primary source is not necessarily more authoritative or accurate than a secondary source. There can be bias and simplification of events.quote|"Original material may be ... prejudiced, or at least not exactly what it claims to be."|David Iredale [David Iredale, "Enjoying Archives"] These errors may be corrected in secondary sources, which are often subjected to peer review, can be well documented, and are often written by historians working in institutions where methodological accuracy is important to the future of the author's career and reputation. Historians consider the accuracy and objectiveness of the primary sources they are using and historians subject both primary and secondary sources to a high level of scrutiny. A primary source such as a journal entry (or the online version, a blog), at best, may only reflects one individual's opinion on events, which may or may not be truthful, accurate, or complete. Participants and eyewitnesses may misunderstand events or distort their reports (deliberately or unconsciously) to enhance their own image or importance. Such effects can increase over time, as people create a narrative that may not be accurate. [ Sommer and Quinlan (2002)] For any source, primary or secondary, it is important for the researcher to evaluate the amount and direction of bias. [ Library of Congress (2007)] As an example, a government report may be an accurate and unbiased description of events, but it can be censored or altered for propaganda or cover-up purposes. The facts can be distorted to present the opposing sides in a negative light. Barristers are taught that evidence in a court case may be truthful, but it may be distorted to support (or oppose) the position of one of the parties.


Historians must occasionally contend with forged documents, purporting to be primary sources. These forgeries have been constructed with the intention of promulgating legal rights, supporting false pedigrees or promoting particular interpretations of historic events. The investigation of documents to determine their authenticity is diplomatics.

For centuries the Popes used the forged Donation of Constantine to bolster the secular power of the Papacy. Among the earliest forgeries are Anglo-Saxon Charters. There are a number of 11th and 12th century forgeries produced by monasteries and abbeys to support a claim to land where the original document had been lost (or never existed). One particularly unusual forgery of a primary source was perpetrated by Sir Edward Dering who placed false monumental brasses in a local church. [Everyone has Roots: An Introduction to English Genealogy by Anthony J. Camp, published by Genealogical Pub. Co., 1978] In 1986, Hugh Trevor-Roper "authenticated" the Hitler diaries which proved to be forgeries. Recently, forged documents have been placed within the UK National Archives in the hope of establishing a false provenance. [ [ News | Update on document authenticity ] ] However, historians dealing with recent centuries rarely encounter forgeries of any importance. [Handlin et al, Harvard Guide to American History (1954) p 22-25]

ee also

*Source criticism
*Source literature
*Source text
*Historical document
*Secondary source
*Tertiary source
*Original research
*UNISIST model



*cite book |title=A Student's Guide to History |last=Benjamin |first=Jules R |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=2004 |publisher=Bedford/St. Martin's |location=Boston |isbn=0-312-40356-9 |pages=
*cite book |title=Using Internet Primary Sources to Teach Critical Thinking Skills in History |last=Craver |first=Kathleen W |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=1999 |publisher=Greenwood Press |location=Westwood, CT |isbn=0-313-30749-0 |pages=
*cite journal |last=Cripps |first=Thomas |authorlink= |coauthors= |year=1995 |month= |title=Historical Truth: An Interview with Ken Burns |journal=American Historical Review |volume=100 |issue=3 |pages=741–764 |doi=10.2307/2168603 |url= |accessdate= |quote=
* Michael Drake and Ruth Finnegan (Eds), "Sources and Methods for Family and Community Historians: A Handbook," (Cambridge University Press in conjunction with the Open University, 1997)
* Wood Gray, "Historian's handbook, a key to the study and writing of history" (Houghton Mifflin, 1964).
* Oscar Handlin et al., "Harvard Guide to American History" (1954)
* Martha C. Howell and Walter Prevenier. "From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods" (2001)
* Library of Congress, " Analysis of Primary Sources" [ online 2007]
* Richard A. Marius and Melvin E. Page. "A Short Guide to Writing About History" (5th Edition) (2004)
* Barbara W. Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan, "The Oral History Manual" (2002)

*Olden-Jørgensen, Sebastian (2001). "Til kilderne! Introduktion til historisk kildekritik". København: Gads Forlag. ("To the sources: Introduction to historical source criticism").

External links

:- to primary sources repositories
* [ EAD Central] - search engine designed to locate U.S. history and international primary source documents. Includes specialized searches for finding aids, photographs, genealogical data, presidential papers, manuscripts, artifacts, diaries, letters, science/technology/medicine documents, historiography, museums, exhibits, multicultural items, women, library and archival products, as well as theses and dissertations.
* [ Primary Sources from World War One and Two] Database of mailed letters to and from soldiers during major world conflicts from the Napoleonic Wars to World War Two.
* [ A listing of over 5000 websites] describing holdings of manuscripts, archives, rare books, historical photographs, and other primary sources
* [ Find primary sources] in the collections of major research libraries using ArchiveGrid
* [ "Primary Sources"] - Online news publication featuring articles about primary sources making headlines. Covers major media outlets, local newspapers, and blogs. Includes public polls on issues like presidential records and the sale of the Magna Carta. Discusses trends in technology like digitization, data archiving, and digital preservation.

:- to all sources repositories
* – "The Free Library" – is the Wikimedia project that collects, edits, and catalogs all source texts.

:- to essays and descriptions of primary, secondary and other sources
* [ Ithaca College Library] - Primary and secondary sources
* [ "How to distinguish between primary and secondary sources"] from the University of California, Santa Cruz Library
* [ "Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary sources"] from James Cook University Library
* [ Joan of Arc: Primary Sources Series] -- Example of a publication focusing on primary source documents.
* [ Finding primary sources] from the University of California, Berkeley library
* [ "Primary versus secondary sources"] from the Bowling Green State University library
* [ Finding primary sources in world history]
* [ Guide to Terminology] used when describing archival and other primary source materials.

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