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Research Using Primary Sources

This guide will clarify how to locate, access, and use primary sources, particularly at the University of Maryland.

Glossary: Terms to Know

Primary Source

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.

Evaluating whether something can be used as a primary source depends on two things:

  • Proximity to the source
    • Ideally the best type of source material comes from a person or process that is closest in time or proximity to the event, person or place under study. Usually the creator of this type of primary source is an eyewitness who left a record for personal or procedural purposes. Reliability of sources declines as one get farther in time and proximity.
  • Questions asked
    • Determining whether a source is a primary source often depends on the questions asked of it by the researcher.

For Example
A history text from the 1950s about the rise of Catholicism in America is usually considered a secondary source. However, a researcher investigating prevailing attitudes about religion in the 1950s may consider this work a primary source.

Secondary Source

Secondary sources are completely removed in proximity from the original event, person or place and seek to provide an interpretation based on primary sources.

There is a continuum from primary to secondary sources, and many sources show elements of both.

For Example
Ken Burns's television documentary about the American Civil War is a secondary source that uses primary sources to tell a story. A memoir written by a Civil War veteran in 1887, twenty-two years after the end of the Civil War, can be considered a primary source, albeit far removed from the actual events. A history text about the Civil War written in 1987, however, is most definitely a secondary source.


Archives are usually unpublished, primary source material that document the activities of an individual or organization.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 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.

For a more in-depth discussion of the definition of archives and special collections, visit the web site of The Society of American Archivists. There, you will find an an , including a discussion of the definition of archives.

For Example
The University Archives at UMD includes the records of the President's Office, student groups, sports teams, and distinguished faculty.

Archivist, Curator, LibrarianArchivist teaching a class in the exhibition gallery

These terms are often used interchangeably.

Archivist, Curator, and Librarian describe people responsible for the management of a special collection, such as an archives, manuscript repository, or rare book collection. These jobs may include activities such as describing, preserving, and providing access to primary sources. These librarians serve to protect the materials in their care.

Archivists, curators, or librarians are often the best people to approach for in-depth information about the collections they oversee.

Finding Aid

Finding aids are 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 history 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.

Archival Collections at UMD Libraries

For Example

A finding aid provides general information about a collection,
such as the name, dates, description and size.

General information on the John H Alexander finding aid

A finding aid will also often list of a collection's contents,
summarized at the box, folder or item level.

Detail of John H Alexander finding aid

Special Collections

Special collections have characteristics that set them apart from other types of collections in libraries. These special aspects may include:

  • Rarity: materials that are old, scarce or unique
  • Format: irregular materials that need special handling, such as photographs, slides, films, audio recordings, maps, artworks, artifacts and other objects 
  • Comprehensiveness: accumulation of materials that collectively create an important resource because of their relevance to a particular topic or individual, the individual items may not be particularly valuable, but once put together, they become a special collection