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Pursuing Primary Sources

A guide to historical and data research.


Welcome to the Pursuing Primary Sources guide. This instructional guide will introduce you to historical and data primary source research. Primary source research has some unique challenges and considerations. Navigate through the pages in this guide to learn more.


With this guide you will:​

  • Learn how and when primary sources are collected and preserved​
  • Reflect on the importance of primary source context​
  • Explore strategies for finding primary sources

What is a primary source?

As we move through life, we generate a wide range of materials that record our activities. When we take pictures with our phones, record data for a research project, or get a grocery receipt we are creating primary sources. This includes things we might think of as historical primary sources (diaries, journals, photographs) and things that might surprise us, like literature or dance cards. Some of these we will save, and some we won't. At different times in history, the types of primary sources created have varied. As researchers, we want to think about the kinds of primary sources that are likely to still exist on the subjects we are researching. We should consider which of those will be useful for our work, and how we might find them.

Let's take a moment to understand what we're looking for. Primary sources are often defined as "eye-witness accounts of an event". Eye-witness accounts are primary sources! This definition has a strong historical focus and excludes many primary sources. Instead, consider this definition:

"Primary sources are materials in a variety of formats that serve as original evidence documenting a time period, an event, a work, people, or ideas.”

SAA-ACRL/RBMS Joint Task Force on the Development of Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy. (2018). Guidelines for primary source literacy.

This definition allows for a larger range of primary sources. It also highlights why we search for primary sources: they are original evidence. Let's look at some examples of primary sources.