Primary sources are original documents or artifacts that originate from the time or event being researched. They include first-hand observations, contemporary accounts of events, and viewpoints of the time. In the sciences primary sources also include reports and articles on the results of original research. This page focuses on primary sources for the arts, humanities, and social sciences.
The boxes below describe resources and strategies for finding historical primary sources.
Examples of primary sources
Letters, Diaries, scrapbooks
Government documents (statistics, congressional transcripts, laws, etc.)
Personal accounts, autobiographies, memoirs
Images and museum artifacts
Data from scientific experiments
Other types of information may also be primary sources if they are analyzed for their historical or cultural significance.
Key questions for evaluating source relevance
What is it about?
The title will be your first immediate clue. If available, read the abstract (a summary of the article). If there is no abstract, read the article introduction and scan the article headings. Consider how the item relates to your research question and how you might use it.
What is the subject area focus?
Knowing what discipline an article comes from can help you decide if the article is relevant. For example, if you are researching global warming activism for a political science class, an article on global warming from a chemistry journal may not be helpful if it doesn't focus on political issues. Look at the title of the book or article or the journal title to try to determine the subject area.
Are you looking for recent information?
If so, look carefully at publication dates. If you are not sure how recent you need the information to be, do some background information on your topic to see if there have been any recent changes or legislation. For example, if you are researching same-sex marriage, older articles might say that it is not legal in every state since the US Supreme Court did not legalize marriage equality until June 2015.
What type of source is it?
Consider what types of sources or information you need. For example, sometimes you may be asked to use only scholarly sources.
For scholarly books, look at the publisher. (Is it a university press or other scholarly press? Do they describe their editorial process? You may need to Google the publisher to figure it out.) For scholarly articles, look at the title of the journal (not the article title). Learn more about determining if an article is scholarly below.
Books and articles:
Articles tend to focus on a very specific issue or analysis, while books usually address a broader topic. (Note, however, that some books consist of a series of article chapters.) Often the record in a library database will indicate the item type, but you can also tell from the citation.
This may only be relevant in courses which require that a specific type of research be used (quantitative, qualitative, experimental, systematic review, etc.). The abstract usually contains clues about the type of study. Most research studies also have a "Methods" section that describes how the research was conducted.
Evaluating relevance with a database record
Looking at the information about a source that you see on the screen (in the database record) can also help with evaluating the source's relevance. Elements to examine include: the article title; journal or book title (this information is often labeled "source" in the database record); publication date; subjects; and often an abstract (article summary).
describe the article topic, can also be used to find other related sources
short summary of the source. In many databases click on the title of the article or book to read the abstract
Peer-reviewed publications (sometimes called scholarly, academic, or refereed) have gone through a review process by experts in the field before being published. Library databases are good places to locate peer-reviewed articles, though not all sources found in those resources are peer-reviewed.
These strategies can help you determine if an article is peer-reviewed.
Learn more about the journal your article was published in:
If you found the article in a database:
there may be an icon on the left side of the source description that indicates the source type (e.g., scholarly article, magazine article, scholarly book). Peer-reviewed articles are usually published in scholarly journals and sometimes in scholarly books.
clicking on the journal title may give you more information about the journal and the journals editorial process.
Google the title of the journal and locate the publisher's website for the journal. Then look for an editorial policy page or a page for authors. This page should also indicate whether articles go through a peer review process.
Last resort: In many databases you can limit your search to only peer-reviewed articles. (This is not ideal, since it will remove some relevant items, such as peer-reviewed book articles.)
Look for a checkbox that limits a search to scholarly (peer-reviewed) articles (either on the first search page or on the results page),
Search in a database or journal that only contains peer-reviewed articles. (Read about the database or journal to identify the nature of its publications.)