Find Primary Source Material

Ask your professor or a librarian if you have questions about identifying or finding primary sources for a research project.

General characteristics of a primary source

Primary sources provide direct evidence or firsthand testimony about the period or subject you're researching. Primary sources vary depending upon academic discipline and context.

  • In the Humanities, in a field such as History or English, a primary source is something that was created during the time period being studied, or created later by individuals who participated in the events of that time.
  • In the Social Sciences, such as Sociology or Psychology, data and research results from experiments or surveys are other examples of primary sources.
  • In the Sciences, such as Biology or Chemistry, primary sources might be reports on original research or ideas. These are often reported as research articles in scholarly journals.

A primary source...

  • Provides direct evidence about the topic being studied
  • Was created at or close to the time of an event or topic
  • Was created by participants in or observers of an event, time period, or other topic
  • Can be found in archives as manuscripts, published in books, articles, or newspapers, or online.

Examples of primary sources include:

  • Eyewitness accounts
  • Autobiographies and memoirs
  • Diaries, papers, letters or correspondence, speeches
  • Interviews
  • Documents such as laws, court decisions, treaties, charters, deeds, certificates
  • Novels, poems, or plays written at the time of the event
  • Photographs, architectural drawings, and artifacts

How do I locate primary source materials?

Books

Primary sources are sometimes republished as books. Try a search in the library's catalog using keywords that describe your topic along with one or more of the following terms:

  • memoirs
  • letters
  • diaries
  • correspondence
  • narratives
  • papers
  • laws
  • documents

For example: "pioneer life diaries"

Articles

Preus Library has journals, magazines, and newspapers that go back many decades. Articles from newspapers and magazines written at the time an event occurred can be a good source of primary information. Check out the All Databases list for access to the newspapers and magazines available from Preus Library.

Newspaper Archives

Historical newspapers are an excellent primary source for investigating events of a certain time period—and in our rapidly growing digital world, many of the major newspapers are available electronically going back to their inception. The Times Machine from the New York Times is one example of this. Chronicling America is another newspaper archiving project from the Library of Congress.

College Archives

The Luther College Archives is located on the Upper Floor of Preus Library and is available for students during open research hours. The Archives contains the historical records of the college and the personal papers of people affiliated with the college. It is a rich resource of primary source materials on a wide variety of topics.

Web Resources

Many libraries, archives, and museums have digital versions of their collections, and can be an excellent resource for photographs, original documents, and reprints of diaries and letters. Some sites are specific to a certain event or era, while others provide more wide-ranging historical documents.

Examples include Digital Collections from the Library of Congress and the Digital Public Library of America.

How a secondary source is different than a primary source

  • Secondary sources usually are published after the event(s) or time period being studied
  • Secondary sources often report on or analyze people, events, conditions, and historical periods
  • Secondary sources often include and synthesize information from other sources - primary sources, books, and articles

Examples of secondary sources include:

  • Most material found in books, reference works, journals, and newspapers
  • Biographies
  • Histories and analyses written by someone who did not participate or observe
  • Studies of authors and their works
  • Most novels, poems, and plays
  • Book, film, or literature reviews