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Library 101 Primary Sources  

Last Updated: Dec 6, 2016 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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Primary Sources on the Web - American History

  • American Memory
    Provides free and open access through the Internet to written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience.
  • Documenting the American South
    A digital publishing initiative that provides Internet access to texts, images, and audio files related to southern history, literature, and culture. Currently DocSouth includes fourteen thematic collections of books, diaries, posters, artifacts, letters, oral history interviews, and songs.
  • A Hypertext on American History
    A Hypertext on American History from the colonial period until Modern Times.
  • The Library of Congress
    Access to a growing number of digitized photographs, manuscripts, maps, sound recordings, motion pictures, and books, as well as "born digital" materials such as Web sites.
  • The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
    The Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the New-York Historical Society, contains more than 60,000 documents detailing the political and social history of the United States. The collection's holdings include manuscript letters, diaries, maps, photographs, printed books and pamphlets ranging from 1493 through modern times.

Primary or Secondary?

For some research assignments, it is important to use primary sources, instead of or in addition to secondary sources. What’s the difference?

Primary sources are original documents or objects—first-hand information or the raw material. These original documents are often diaries, letters, memoirs, journals, speeches, or interviews. They may also include published pieces such as newspaper or magazine articles, as long as they are written soon after the fact and not as historical accounts. Eye witness accounts, photographs, audio or video recordings, research reports in the natural or social sciences, or original literary or theatrical works are also considered primary sources.

Secondary sources interpret primary sources. Secondary sources include comments on, interpretations of, or discussions about the original material. You can think of secondary sources as second-hand information. Secondary source materials can be articles in newspapers or popular magazines, book or movie reviews, or articles found in scholarly journals that evaluate or criticize someone else’s original research.

Examples of Primary and Secondary Sources



Primary Source

Secondary Source



Original artwork

Article critiquing the piece of art


Slave diary

Book about the Underground Railroad



Treatise on a particular genre of poetry

Political Science


Essay on Native American land rights

Science or Social Sciences

Report of an original experiment

Review of several studies on the same topic


Videotape of a performance

Biography of a playwright


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