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Primary Sources: Across Disciplines

Montgomery Library's Guide to Primary Sources

Primary Sources

The purpose of this guide is to help users to locate, identify, and use primary resources in their research.

Click on tabs to:

  • Read definitions of primary, secondary, and tertiary sources and learn how to use them.
  • Locate primary sources in Montgomery Library and beyond.
  • Find primary sources by subject.
  • Learn how to evaluate and cite primary sources.

What is a primary source?

From Yale University

"Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later. 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." (Source: "Primary Sources at Yale")


Primary sources may include:

  • Anecdotes
  • Annals
  • Art--Portraits, Historical Paintings, Sculpture
  • Artifacts--Coins, Medals, Pottery, Textiles
  • Autobiographies
  • Business Records
  • Chronicles
  • Court Records
  • Human Remains
  • Letters
  • Literature
  • Memoirs
  • Newspapers
  • Phonographs
  • Photographs
  • Public Documents
  • Oral Histories
  • Sagas
  • Slave Narratives
  • Songs
  • Speeches
  • Tales

Using Primary Sources

A researcher of past events in any field (history, political science, religion, economics, and society, among others) uses primary sources:

  • to establish facts;
  • to determine the sequence of what occurred within an event;
  • to discover thoughts and motivations of the actors;
  • to make sound inferences about the state-of-mind, intentions, and goals of an actor;
  • to suggest investigative methods.

Secondary and Tertiary Sources

Secondary Works

  • Based on primary sources or other sources, including secondary works such as books and journal articles, and tertiary works, like encyclopedias.
  • Interpretations and analyses are derived from primary and other sources.
  • A secondary text can become a primary source when it reflects the intellectual, social, cultural, and political thought of the time it was written. For example, Winston Churchill's A History of the English-speaking Peoples was written by the United Kingdom's Prime Minister as a history of Great Britain and its relationship with its former colonies in the Commonwealth of Nations and the United States, which chose to break from the British crown and go its own way. For the general public and historians of British history, Churchill's history was a secondary source of the grand sweep of British history from Roman times to the beginning of World War I. For biographers of Winston Churchill, the four volumes are primary sources that tell about Churchill's intellectual life.

Tertiary Wources

  • Based on information in secondary sources.
  • Interpretative and analytical in character.
  • Usually synthesizes information from many sources.
  • Restates arguments and conclusions made by other authors/researchers.
  • Not trustworthy for supporting arguments.

Adapted from The Information-Literate Historian: A Guide to Research for History Students, by Jenny L. Presnell. New York: Oxford University Press, © 2007; Writing History: A Guide for Students, by William Kelleher Storey, New York: Oxford University Press, © 2009; The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, © 2003