Primary Sources


Primary sources are original records or firsthand accounts. Designation as a primary source may depend on context, focus and perspective, and time of study.  If sources provide interpretation or analysis, they may be secondary sources.  A primary source in one discipline or context may not be a primary source in another situation.

The UAlbany Primary and Secondary Sources and the Online Reference Collection Primary Sources Web pages plus Additional Resources for Understanding Primary Sources, below, include definitions, examples, and more in-depth study of this topic.

Primary source formats

    audio, video, microforms, images, digital
    written accounts, documents, reports, records
    physical objects
    some reproductions, e.g., a copy or facsimile of an original letter from the 18th century


Finding Primary Sources

Library catalogs – Example: Marcia Brown papers from Minerva

Bibliographies – Example: Find primary sources in this book: Great stories of World War II : an annotated bibliography of eyewitness war-related books written and published between 1940 and 1946 from Minerva

Specialized Web pages – Example: Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States

Local/regional resources – Albany County Hall of Records, New York Public Library Archives & Manuscripts, New York State Archives, Selected Digital Historical Documents from the Collections of the New York State Library

National resources – Library of Congress, National Archives

These MAY BE Primary Sources (depending on context)

letters or correspondence


surveys, polls

constitution, statutes, bills, acts, laws



radio broadcasts, news film footage

executive orders, papers, inaugural or state of the union addresses

personal journals

sketchbooks, artist notebooks

conference proceedings, symposia

treaties, trade agreements, pacts, accords



dissertations, theses based on original research

court records, proceedings, opinions, decisions, transcripts

audio or videorecording, personal narrative

literary works such as a novel, poem

inscribed materials such as tablets, engravings, gravestones

business documents such as memoranda, contracts, ledgers, invoices

e-mail, listserv postings

works of art, music, film, drama

utensils, tools, furniture, weapons

records, minutes, publications of organizations


architectural drawings

badges, pins, buttons, banners


speeches, debates

artifacts or relics

logos, symbols, advertising, signs

technical or other reports


clothing, jewerly

pamphlets, fliers, brochures




computer-generated graphics

field notes

birth, marriage, death certificates or records

wills, family bibles, genealogical charts

certificates, awards, commendations

empirical studies, research data

medical records

student records, report cards

tests, rating scales


Citing primary sources

Cite a primary source using guidelines appropriate to the format, e.g., book, report, interview, and the recommended citation style guide such as MLA or APA.  See citing information from the Information Literacy Department in the University Libraries, University at Albany.  Follow your professor’s instructions for citing sources as your primary guide for citation format.

Additional Resources for Understanding Primary Sources

Dalton, M. S., & Charnigo, L. (2004). Historians and their information sources. College & Research Libraries, 65, 400-425.
See these tables for ways used to discover primary and secondary information. 
Table 4. Most Frequent Way of Discovering Primary Information
Table 5. Most Frequent Way of Discovering Secondary Information

Instruction & Research Services Committee, (2008, January). Using Primary Sources on the Web. Retrieved January 22, 2014, from the Reference and User Services Association, American Library Association Web site:

American Social History Project / Center for Media and Learning (Graduate Center, CUNY) and New Media (George Mason University), (2006, March 31). Making Sense of Evidence. Retrieved May 13, 2008. This information-rich Web site serves as a gateway to primary resources and provides strategies and instruction in using these resources.  You can listen to audioclips or read transcripts; scholars interpret and analyze documents such as letters and diaries.