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HIST: Senior Seminar: Primary Sources

What is A Primary Source?

Primary sources are those which were either created during the time period being studied or were created at a later date by a participant in the events being studied (memoirs, for example). They reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer. 

Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period.

Examples of primary sources include letters, photographs, physical objects (articles of clothing, cooking utensils, etc.) maps, audio/video recordings, posters, postcards, government documents, diaries, court records, and census bureau data that is tabulated but not interpreted, etc.

For historians, the distinction between primary and secondary sources can be a bit complicated.  For example, a history of the Great Depression written during the 1950s is considered a secondary source.  However, it may also serve as a primary source for someone researching the 1950s or researching the ways in which historical interpretations of past events have shifted over time.

The important question to ask is whether the work was written or created during the time period under investigation and how you intend to use it.

See a more in depth explanation of this issue written by Michael Earmon, historian and archivst at the Library and Archives Canada .

U.S. History

Chicago History

Chicago-area libraries and archives together constitute a rich repository of primary source material.

Special Topics

Memoirs, Letters, Interviews, Diaries, and More

To locate memoirs, letters, interviews, autobiographies, diaries...

Search the I-Share catalog by author (last name, first name). If you do not have the name of an individual, search the I-Share catalog by subject or keyword and add the appropriate subject terms to the subject heading:

  • Correspondence
  • Diaries
  • Interviews
  • Personal narratives

Example: Japanese Americans interviews

To locate books from a particular time period ...

Search the I-Share catalog using the advanced search option.  Limit by date of publication.

Magazine and Journal Articles

To locate a primary source magazine or journal article...

Search for a magazine or journal article from the time period you're writing about. Look for a specific event or date in a newspaper article from the time period you're writing about.

The following databases index and in most cases provide electronic reproductions of full-text, primary source magazines, journals, and newspapers.

Government Publications

Public records produced from federal, state, local and international governments or intergovernmental organizations (NGOs) provide primary source material benefical to nearly all research interests. Government documents offer a broad array of historic and current sources including:

  • hearings and debates of legislative bodies;
  • official text of laws, regulations and treaties;
  • records of government expenditures and finances;
  • statistical compilations such as census data;
  • investigative reports;
  • and scientific data.

Primary sources include full text of congressional bills/resolutions both passed and not passed, congressional committee hearings, prints, documents and reports, floor debates, proceedings, journals, directories, manuals, voting data, and publications of the support agencies of congress. These official documents are issued by the full congress, either of the houses jointly or individually, or by the committees. Official congressional documents do not include materials issued by the political parties, groups of legislators, or by one individual congress member.

The Benedictine Library is also a depository for State of Illinois resources.

For more resources, see the following Research Guides:


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