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HIST 2041: Historiography

Methods for the researching and writing of history from textual sources.

Primary Sources in the Humanities

Deposition of Abigail Williams


"Primary sources are the raw materials of history — original documents and objects which were created at the time under study. They are different from secondary sources, accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience." 

-(Library of Congress)

Image: Deposition of Abigail Williams, May 1962

Primary sources in the humanities are documents or artifacts created during the time period being studied or by individuals reflecting on their involvement in an event.

Primary sources include:

  • Newspaper articles
  • Magazine or other periodical articles written during the time period
  • Government and legal documents
  • Diaries
  • Letters
  • Autobiographies and memoirs
  • Interviews
  • Speeches
  • Images, including photographs and drawings
  • Sound and video recordings
  • Archival records, logs, or data
  • Ledgers
  • Artifacts

Evaluating Primary Sources

These questions from can help you evaluate primary sources.

Historians go to primary sources in the search for evidence to answer questions about what happened in the past and why. When working with primary sources, answering a series of basic questions can help us draw more accurate conclusions.

When trying to gather evidence from a primary source, first try to answer these basic questions. (You may not have enough information to do so.)

  1. What is it?
  2. Who wrote or made it?
  3. When was it written or made?
  4. Where was it written or made?
  5. How was it written or made?
  6. What evidence does this source contribute to my research?

Then ask, what is the meaning of this primary source?

  1. Why was this document/object written or made?
  2. Who was the intended audience/user?
  3. What questions does this source raise? What don’t we know about this source?
  4. What other information do we have about this document or object?
  5. What other sources are like this one?
  6. What other sources might help answer our questions about this one?
  7. What else do we need to know in order to understand the evidence in this source?
  8. What have others said about this or similar sources?
  9. How does this source help me to answer my research question?
  10. How does evidence from this source alter or fit into existing interpretations of the past?

How to Use Primary Sources

Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research