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Online Primary Sources: Home

These collections provide access to digitized archives and documents from all over the world.

What are Primary Sources?

Most of the resources found in the collections listed in this guide are primary sources. A primary source is an item produced at the time of an event. It can be a letter, journal, newspaper article, painting, book, speech, or anything else produced by people who are leaving a record of their own personal experiences. 

Be aware, however, that some of these collections may include secondary sources. These are sources that are produced by people who were not there. Many books and newspaper articles are secondary sources–they are reporting or reflecting back on events that the author does not have first hand knowledge or experience of. 

Confused? Click here to learn more about primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

Citing Primary Sources

Chicago Manual of Style
This guide provides examples of how different types of online primary sources are cited using the Chicago Manual of Style, the standard citation format for History.

MLA Style
This guide provides examples of how different types of online primary sources are cited using the MLA (Modern Language Association) Manual of Style, the standard citation format for English and The Humanities

Analyzing Primary Sources

In order to analyze a primary source you need information about two things: the document itself, and the era from which it comes. You can base your information about the time period on the readings you do in class and on lectures. On your own you need to think about the document itself. The following questions may be helpful to you as you begin to analyze the sources:

  1. Look at the physical nature of your source. This is particularly important and powerful if you are dealing with an original source (i.e., an actual old letter, rather than a transcribed and published version of the same letter). What can you learn from the form of the source? (Was it written on fancy paper in elegant handwriting, or on scrap-paper, scribbled in pencil?) What does this tell you?
  2. Think about the purpose of the source. What was the author's message or argument? What was he/she trying to get across? Is the message explicit, or are there implicit messages as well?
  3. How does the author try to get the message across? What methods does he/she use?
  4. What do you know about the author? Race, sex, class, occupation, religion, age, region, political beliefs? Does any of this matter? How?
  5. Who constituted the intended audience? Was this source meant for one person's eyes, or for the public? How does that affect the source?
  6. What can a careful reading of the text (even if it is an object) tell you? How does the language work? What are the important metaphors or symbols? What can the author's choice of words tell you? What about the silences--what does the author choose NOT to talk about?

Now you can evaluate the source as historical evidence.

  1. Is it prescriptive--telling you what people thought should happen--or descriptive--telling you what people thought did happen?Does it describe ideology and/or behavior?
  2. Does it tell you about the beliefs/actions of the elite, or of "ordinary" people? From whose perspective?
  3. What historical questions can you answer using this source? What are the benefits of using this kind of source?
  4. What questions can this source NOT help you answer? What are the limitations of this type of source?
  5. If we have read other historians' interpretations of this source or sources like this one, how does your analysis fit with theirs? In your opinion, does this source support or challenge their argument?

Source:  Carleton College

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