Using Primary Sources for Historical Research
Primary sources are the raw materials of history — original documents and objects which were created at the time under study such as: letters, diaries, newspapers, government documents, and works of art.
Primary sources can also be produced later by eyewitnesses or participants (memoirs, oral histories). You may find primary sources in their original format (usually in an archive) or reproduced in a variety of ways: books, microfilm, digital, etc.
Secondary sources are interpretations of events written after an examination of primary sources and usually other secondary sources, such as books and journal articles.
When you write a research paper, you are creating a secondary source!
Why Use Primary Sources?
Primary sources provide a window into the past—unfiltered access to the record of artistic, social, scientific and political thought and achievement during the specific period under study, produced by people who lived during that period. Coming into close contact with these unique, often profoundly personal, documents and objects can give a very real sense of what it was like to be alive during a long-past era.
Primary source help you develop critical thinking skills. Primary sources are often incomplete and have little context. You must use prior knowledge and work with multiple primary sources to find patterns. In analyzing primary sources, you will move from concrete observations and facts to questioning and making inferences about the materials. Questions of creator bias, purpose, and point of view may challenge your assumptions.
Inquiry into primary sources encourages you to wrestle with contradictions and compare multiple sources that represent differing points of view, confronting the complexity of the past. You will construct knowledge as you form reasoned conclusions, base your conclusions on evidence, and connect primary sources to the context in which they were created, synthesizing information from multiple sources. Integrating what you learn from comparing primary sources with what you already know, and what you learn from research, allows you to construct content knowledge and deepen understanding.