The value of primary sources of information
What are Primary Sources?
Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later. Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of whether they are available in original format, in microfilm/microfiche, in digital format, or in published format
Original documents are considered primary sources of information and can provide valuable information about a time, place or event in history.
A government’s documents are direct evidence of its activities, functions, and policies. For any research that relates to the workings of government,
government documents are indispensible primary sources.
Manuscript and archival material
Manuscript and archival materials are unique resources that can be found in only one library or institution (though digital copies or copies on microfilm or
microfiche may be available elsewhere). They are valuable primary source material for researchers in many fields of study, including history, political
science, sociology, literature, journalism, cultural anthropology, health sciences, law, and education. Manuscripts and archival materials are distinct
from other library materials in the ways they are described, accessed, handled and evaluated.
Maps are primary sources because they are created in particular cultural contexts. Mapmakers may have hidden agendas or be influenced by political or
Realia and artifacts
Once functional objects used by people, realia and artifacts convey important information about the lives and histories of peoples. Realia and artifacts are
three-dimensional and unlike two-dimensional objects such as books and manuscripts, can be either man-made or naturally occurring. While all collected
realia and artifacts are deemed as having documentary value, some are valued for their intrinsic worth, others for their artistic merit, and others for their historical significance or scientific value. Realia and artifacts commonly used for research are: War memorabilia such as canteens, mess kits, and
uniforms Emblems and badges.
The term “visual material” refers to any primary source in which images, instead of or in conjunction with words and/or sounds, are used to convey
meaning. Some common and useful types of visual materials are as follows:
> Original art, including but not limited to paintings, drawings, sculpture, architectural drawings and plans, and monoprints.
> Prints, which are works produced in multiple but limited numbers such as woodcuts, engravings, etchings, and lithographs
> Graphic arts, including materials such as posters, trade cards, and computer generated graphics
> Film and video
Any of these materials can provide valuable information to a researcher. Factual information can often be extracted from visual materials; however, the
best information imparted by these materials is often of a subjective nature, providing insight into how people see themselves and the world in which they exist.
Primary sources reveal information about the production and performance of music, aural traditions, histories of musical composition, notation, and
technique, information about music theory and about individuals’ and cultures’ technological advancement, economy, education, cognition, and more. The types of resources used in research include:
> Manuscript music scores
> Musical instruments
> Sheet music
> Historical and contemporary sound recordings on LP and disc
> Books, periodicals, photographs, and archives related to music and musicians
Sound recordings include not only music but also the spoken word - poetry, plays, speeches, etc
Oral history interviews and video memoirs provide important perspectives for historians. Since the invention of the tape recorder in the 1950s, oral history
projects of many kinds have proliferated, ranging from the “man-on-the-street” type of interview to the more formal Presidential archives
Adapted from Yale University Primary Sources