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Special Collections: Research Guides to Primary Sources: Guides to Primary Sources in Special Collections

This guide will direct you to topic specific research guides that will help you find primary source material relevant to each of those subjects.

Research Guides By Subject/Topic/Historical Era

What Is A Primary Source?

Primary sources are the raw materials of history.  They are the original documents or creative works generated in the time period under study. Often, but not always, primary sources contain or demonstrate the perspective of its creator as in, for example, a diary or letter. However, government documents and reports can be primary sources but fail to express an individual’s perspective. For example, the Kentucky Department of Mines and Minerals issues an annual report which contains rich data for someone researching coal production in a particular year, but it does not offer a personal perspective. Sometimes primary sources can be found on the Internet, often in the form of digitized historical documents and government records, such as the U.S. Census.

Other examples of primary sources:

Artifacts (clothing, furniture, tools, buildings, paintings, artwork)


First-person accounts (including newspaper accounts)

Government publications (statistics, court reports)

Historical documents including broadsides, last wills and testaments, posters, and maps

Lab reports

Draft copies of literary works




Correspondence (i.e., written or electronic letters, email)



Official government or corporate/business records or papers

Audio recordings (e.g., radio programs, speeches, oral histories, music)

Film/Video/Digital Visual Recordings

What Is A Secondary Source?

A secondary source of information is one that was created later by someone who did not experience first-hand or participate in the events or conditions you’re researching. For the purposes of a historical research project, secondary sources are generally scholarly books and articles. Also included would be reference sources like encyclopedias. (Univ. of Illinois Library)