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HIS 301: American History Before 1865: Primary Sources

Guide to paper and electronic resources for students in Dr. Calvert's section concentrating on American history before 1865. Spring 2013. Calvert.


Definitions of primary sources can vary from discipline to discipline, so make sure you understand what your instructor is expecting from you if you must identify primary resources.

Generally, primary sources are those that document history as it is being made.  This documentation can be written, visual and oral, but it is produced as close to the event or person being studied as possible.  It is not documentation that, for the most part, attempts to explain or explore someone or something.  Articles, books and other sources that are produced later in an attempt to examine and/or bring reason and order to bear on a topic are secondary sources. 

Tertiary sources are those products that help you identify primary and secondary sources. 

The YouTube video in the box to the right presents the differences in primary and secondary sources.

Types of Primary Sources

Primary sources can include newspaper articles, interviews, oral histories, diaries, letters and correspondence, autobiographies/memoirs, research data, government information such as census data, and legislation.  However, primary sources can also be creative and functional objects such as the drama, novels, poetry, music, art, architecture, furniture and clothing produced during a specific time.

Primary sources, such as diaries, letters, and newspaper accounts (published during or shortly after the time of the event) are increasingly available online. However, you can search the online catalog for primary materials by adding subject headings like narratives, correspondence, diaries, letters, transcripts, etc., with another search term, for example, "immigration" AND "ships logs."

What Is a Primary Source?

Created by UC San Diego Libraries.