Find Primary Source Material

Consult with your instructor or the librarians if you have questions about identifying appropriate primary sources for your research paper topic.

General characteristics of a primary source

Primary sources are materials that provide direct evidence or firsthand testimony concerning the period or subject under investigation. The definition of a primary source may vary depending upon the discipline or context.

  • In the Humanities, in a discipline such as History or English, a primary source could be defined as something that was created during the time period being studied or afterward by individuals who participated in the events of that time.
  • In the Social Sciences, such as Sociology or Psychology, numerical 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.

Identifying Characteristics

  • Provides direct evidence about the topic being studied
  • Generated at or close to the time of an event or other topic
  • Created by participants in or observers of an event, time period, or other topic
  • Examples of primary sources include, but are not limited to, the following:
  • Eyewitness accounts
    Autobiographies and memoirs
    Diaries, papers, letters or correspondence, speeches
    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
  • In addition to being available in manuscript form, primary sources can be published as books, parts of books, and articles in journals and newspapers; or on scholarly web sites.

How do I locate primary source materials?


Primary sources are sometimes republished as books. Try a search in WorldCat Discovery using a keyword(s) that describes your topic in combination with one or more of the following terms:

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

e.g. "pioneer life diaries"


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 your Paideia topic guide or contact your section’s librarian for specific starting points for researching articles.

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.

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. The Archives phone number is x1805. Visit the Luther College Archives home page.

Web Resources

An increasing number of web sites offer digital versions of primary sources, and can be an excellent resource photographs, scanned images of original documents, 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, but are not limited to, the following:

  • 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