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History: Primary Sources

Working with Primary Sources

Primary sources are the raw evidence that historians use to interpret the past and may be defined as a record created by a person who participated in the period studied either at the time of the event or later. The key to understanding this type of source is to understand the type of content covered: these sources reflect the particular, individual perspective of the author.  

Working with primary sources is a useful skill both within the discipline of history and beyond as they introduce us to key concepts when dealing with all types of information such as:

  • The awareness that all documented history is subjective as it reflects the author's interpretation and bias. We also become aware of the bias we ourselves bring to the interpretation of sources informed by our own personal situation and the social, economic and political context of our lives.
  • Primary sources bring history to life. They offer a unique insight into past lives, humanising people from different eras.
  • By using primary sources, students develop key analytical skills such as learning to evaluate the quality and reliability of information and making use of many different sources of information.

Remember - primary sources are characterised by their content, regardless of whether they are available in their original format, in microform, in digital format, or as a facsimile in a published document.

Primary sources may be found:

  • Through recommendations from your course tutor or supervisor.
  • By browsing footnotes and bibliographies in secondary sources such as books, journal articles and theses.
  • By browsing the websites of archives and special collections in the UK, Ireland and worldwide. See the tab Archives and Special Collections for more ideas. 
  • Using specialised online catalogues. See the tabs for Key Databases, Newspapers and Early Printed Books for useful links and further information. 

Evaluation of primary sources is essential to scholarly research. Can you trust the account being presented? Is the source reliable? Is the source genuine, or fake? Different types of documents require different authentication approaches. However, the questions below are a useful starting point to thinking about the type of questions you could ask when considering a source: 

  • Who was the author and who was the audience of the primary source?
  • What was the purpose of the document or motive for writing it?
  • Does the writer have an obvious bias?
  • When was this document written, and what was the effect of the document on history?
  • What affect did the document have on the your view of this topic or event?

Primary sources found online need to be carefully considered. See the next tab  Evaluating primary sources found online for some ideas.

There is no control over what is published on the web. However, there is useful, reliable and current information to be found online. The key to making good use of this is to carefully evaluate any information you intend to use.

Points to keep in mind:

  • Most information on the web is not reviewed or 'selected'. You will need to become the reviewer.
  • A lot of information on the web is neither permanent nor stable.
  • A lot of information on the web is outdated.
  • A lot of information on the web is not suitable for academic research.

Before you use information found on the web, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Who wrote the page? Identify the author(s) to establish their credentials and any potential bias.
  2. When was the page last updated? Look for a date to establish the currency.
  3. Who recommended it? Did the recommendation come from a reliable source such as a lecturer or tutor?
  4. Can you find any indications of the quality of the content? Are the sources reliable? Are there many links to the site? Do the links work?
  5. Who is hosting the website? What are their credentials?
  6. Is it a personal website or from a reputable organisation? Check the url: hosts include government departments (.gov),  educational institutions (.edu), organisations (.org) and commercial sites (.com).

Remember that information from resources purchased and recommended by the Library is more likely to be reliable than that found on many websites.

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Digital primary sources at Queen's