Primary sources are usually defined as first hand information or data that is generated by witnesses or participants in past events. Primary sources are characterized not by their format but rather by the information they convey and their relationship to the research question. The interpretation and evaluation of these sources becomes the basis for other research.
Why Do Research Using Primary Sources?
People seek out primary sources because they are looking for direct evidence and information in order to better understand objects, people, places, and events from the past. Researchers use these materials for many reasons, including researching historical people, places, and events; family history; literary analysis; statistical research; studying performance practice; legal research; and marketing.
Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories.
Primary sources may include letters, manuscripts, diaries, journals, newspapers, speeches, interviews, memoirs, documents produced by government agencies such as Congress or the Office of the President, photographs, audio recordings, moving pictures or video recordings, research data, and objects or artifacts such as works of art or ancient roads, buildings, tools, and weapons.
These sources serve as the raw material to interpret the past, and when they are used along with previous interpretations by historians, they provide the resources necessary for historical research.
University of Maryland Libraries own and provide access to many primary materials in all kinds of formats, including books, microforms and electronic collections.
Compare to a Secondary Source
Secondary sources are documents created later by someone who did not experience first-hand or participate in the events or conditions you are researching.
What are archives?
Archives are usually unpublished, primary source material that document the activities of an individual or organization. These unique materials are preserved in an archival setting because the information contained therein has enduring value and /or because they provide evidence of the role and activities of the individual or organization that created them. Archival materials that document the activities of an individual are often referred to as manuscripts.
Finding aids are guides or indexes to archival and manuscript collections. A finding aid can be as simple as a listing of folders (often called an inventory or preliminary inventory), but it can also be a complex document that places materials in context by consolidating information about the collection, such as a historical or biographical note and a description of the arrangement of the collection.
Many finding aids are available online, although a large number of them are not, so it is still a good idea to contact a repository about using special collections before your visit.
ArchivesUM is a database of finding aids to collections located at the University of Maryland.