What are primary sources?

Records created by people or organizations that document events that they planned, participated in or witnessed. Primary sources are the raw material of history. The National Archives has described primary sources as “history in the raw.” Remember that some primary sources have been microfilmed or digitized.


• Diaries, journals, speeches, interviews, letters, memos, manuscripts and other papers in which individuals describe events in which they were participants or observers.

• Memoirs and autobiographies. These are generally less reliable since they are usually written long after events occurred and may be distorted by bias, dimming memory or the revised perspective that may come with hindsight. On the other hand, they are sometimes the only source for certain information.

• Records of organizations and agencies of government. The minutes, reports, correspondence, etc. of an organization or agency serve as an ongoing record of the activity and thinking of that organization or agency. Many kinds of records (births, deaths, marriages; permits and licenses issued; census data; etc.) document conditions in the society.

• Published materials (books, magazine and journal articles, newspaper articles) written at the time about a particular event. While these are sometimes accounts by participants, in most cases they are written by journalists or other observers. The important thing is to distinguish between material written at the time of an event as a kind of report, and material written much later, as historical analysis.

• Photographs, audio recordings and moving pictures or video recordings, documenting what happened.

• Artifacts of all kinds: physical objects, buildings, furniture, tools, appliances and household items, clothing, toys.

• Research reports in the sciences and social sciences. Especially for recent social history, the best evidence of broad developments in society is often in the form of social science surveys or research studies. This research is generally reported in book form, government reports or most commonly in articles published in scholarly journals.

• If you are attempting to find evidence documenting the mentality or psychology of a time, or of a group (evidence of a worldview, a set of attitudes, or the popular understanding of an event or condition), the most obvious source is public opinion polls taken at the time. Since these are generally very limited in availability and in what they reveal, however, it is also possible to make use of ideas and images conveyed in the mass media, and even in literature, film, popular fiction, self-help literature, textbooks, etc. Again, the point is to use these sources, written or produced at the time, as evidence of how people were thinking.

Value of Primary Sources

• evidential/informational: what the intellectual content of the record tells us
• artifactual: what the format or condition of the record tells us
• contextual: additional information that becomes apparent when the record is compared or contrasted with other records that document the same or related events or time periods
Materials with any combination or all of these have research or historical value: that which we as archivists and scholars seek!

How Do Primary Sources Get to Repositories?

Records are created in the course of day-to-day life of individual or organization. The records created or collected by a person, group, or organization together form a “collection.”

The creator, the creator’s heirs, or whoever owns the materials agrees to donate or sell the collection to the archives. Sometimes the donor contacts the archives; sometimes the archivist learns about the records and contacts the donor. The person who owns the collection signs an agreement transferring the records to the repository and decides whether or not to transfer copyright to the repository. The owner and the repository also agree on whether there will be any restrictions on the use of the collection.

The collection is sent to the archives. They might be well organized, or they might arrive jumbled in a box or bag.

The archivist organizes the material (if necessary), performs any needed conservation, writes up a description, and publicizes the fact that the collection is available for use. Each collection is assigned a unique number. The records can be organized by subject, alphabetically, by format, chronologically, by creator (for an organization), or some other way. Usually, the archivist tries to keep the records organized the way that the creator organized them because the way the records are organized provides meaningful contextual information. The collection description is known as a “finding aid.”

How do records of unknown, underdocumented, marginalized or controversial individuals and organizations fit into this process? Proactive collecting and other activism with in the archives profession.

What Are Special Collections?

Category Examples
Archives (records of an organization) minutes, ledgers, correspondence, photographs, yearbooks, financial records
Rare Books (published materials) books, maps, broadsides, periodicals, sheet music
Manuscripts (personal papers) diaries, letters, photographs, scrapbooks, ephemera, videos, oral histories

Historical Societies and other repositories often contain the kinds of materials found in Special Collections along with exhibits and artifacts typical of museums.

How to Locate Primary Sources

Remember that the person or organization that created the collection will probably be listed as the author and the title may be something like “Papers, 1814-1844” or “Records, 1834-1854.”

• Online catalog. All of Duke’s manuscript collections are in the catalog <>. Searches may be limited to manuscript or archival collections by using the “all materials” drop down men and choosing “manuscripts.”
• RLG Union Catalog (Provides bibliographic descriptions of items held in comprehensive research libraries and special libraries; can be found by going to the database lists page, <> and clicking on “R” on the right hand side.)
• WorldCat (available by clicking on “W” on the database lists page).
• Published guides to archives and manuscript collections. Find specific titles in the online catalog, in subject guides available through the RBMSCL home page <> or Sallie Bingham Center guides page, <>, or by asking a librarian.
• Other people’s footnotes. Find out what other people working on your topic used and where the collections are located.
• Contact repositories that seem likely to have relevant collections. Most special collections have homepages that will describe their holdings and offer contact information. There are also printed guides to repositories that list them by location. If you can identify relevant organizations or businesses, call them and ask if they have an archives.
• World Wide Web. Caution: All websites are not created equal! Many have erroneous or poorly documented material on them. Make sure that you know who created the website and why.

Doing Research at a Repository

The materials in the archives are rare, often fragile, and very valuable (to the repository if not intrinsically.) Therefore, you should expect that the repository will want to have proof of your identity, keep a record of what you use, and have strict guidelines for how you use the materials during your visit. Some rare books and microfilm can be borrowed through interlibrary loan, but most materials can only be used in the repository’s reading room. Smaller repositories and private organizations may not require all of these steps.

It may seem like there are a lot of rules associated with using archives. Remember that the archivists want researchers to use them and are glad that you are there. If you have any questions about a rule, feel free to ask the archivist.

1 Preparing for your trip. Check the repository’s website, if any. Contact the repository and see if they can send you information about relevant collections before your trip. They may have subject guides and other helpful things that they have not yet mounted on the web. Verify that they will be open at the time you wish to visit (renovations and other unexpected things can cause unforeseen closings.) Tell them what you would like to look at, if you know. Often, if you let them know what you want to look at, they will have it pulled and ready for you when you arrive. Find out if there are any restrictions on the materials and if you will need any special permissions to use them. If you will be bringing a computer, ask if they have outlets for computers in the reading room. Ask about their photocopying procedures and the cost of copies. Bring a pencil. Find out what information you will need to cite the records in your bibliography and footnotes.
2 Registering and Signing In. When you arrive, you will put your belongings (except for paper, pencil, and computer) in a locker. You will fill out a research application form that identifies you and indicates what your project is. You will be asked to show a photo id. Finally, you will be asked to sign in at a register, indicating the time you started your research that day. You only need to fill out the registration form once, but you will sign in at the register each time you visit.
3 Requesting Materials. The next step is to request the records you would like to use (if you haven’t requested any materials beforehand.) Consult with the staff member in the reference area to see if they have any suggestions. Look up your subject in the catalog and browse through subject guides. Once you have identified collections that look interesting, read through the finding aids to see which parts of the collection would be the most relevant. The repository will have a form on which you will list the collection name; and the boxes, folders or reels you want to use. A staff member will go and get the materials for you.
4 Using the Materials. You will use the materials in a monitored reading room. You will only be able to use a pencil or computer to take notes. Make sure to keep really good notes about which collection you are using and which materials you are using in the collection. You will hate yourself later when you are writing if you don’t have that information and have to go back to the repository to reconstruct it. In some repositories, you can make your own copies. In others, only the staff can make copies. There may be forms to fill out to request copies and to indicate where the document was located in the collection. Some of these sets of forms are fairly Byzantine. Expect to pay more for copies than you do regularly. They may not be able to make the copies before you leave.
5 At the end of your visit. If you don’t finish using the materials in one visit, many repositories will let you put them on hold until your next visit (assuming you will be returning in the next week or so.) Don’t forget to sign out in the register.

Contact Information:
Laura Micham, Director, Sallie Bingham Center for Women History and Culture
Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library
Duke University
Phone: 660.5828

Original document written by Dr. Naomi Nelson, Head of Public Services in Special Collections at Emory University.

Return to Handouts for Students