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Waidner-Spahr Library

Primary Sources: Citing Primary Sources

Citing Primary Sources

Citing primary sources can present challenges. Published primary sources may be quite a bit older than sources you are used to citing and therefore not have the same publication information available as more recently published sources. Additionally, some primary sources have never been traditionally published and are only found in a digital or physical archive or reprinted in secondary sources (examples include letters, photographs, diary entries, etc.).

This guide provides examples of how to cite some common primary sources in different styles, but it cannot provide examples of every single type of primary source you may come across. For more information, we recommend that you check the appropriate style manual, available on reserve at the circulation desk, as well as the additional links provided in this guide. And of course, you can always Ask a Librarian.

Common Citation Dilemmas

Older primary sources may not always have an exact date associated with them. In these cases, you may be given an approximate date.

  • In MLA Style, you indicate an approximate date by putting the date in square brackets and preceding it with "c."
    • Example: [c. 1500]
  • In APA Style, you indicate an approximate date by putting the date in square brackets and preceding it with "ca."
    • Example: [ca. 1650]
  • In Chicago Notes and Bibliography, you can indicate an approximate date in one of two ways: either put the approximate date in square brackets with a question mark or use "n.d." as you would for no date and follow that with "ca." and the approximate date.
    • Example (option 1): [1805?]
    • Example (option 2): n.d., ca. 1805
  • In Chicago Author-Date, you can indicate an approximate date by placing the date in square brackets with a question mark.
    • Example: [1805?]

Books published before a certain date might have different requirements for citations.

  • In MLA Style, books published before 1900 should include the city of publication, in addition to the publisher and year.
    • Example: London: John Murray, 1850
  • In Chicago Notes and Bibliography, if no publisher is given for books published before 1900, the place and date of publication may be used alone, with a comma after the place name, rather than a colon.
    • Example: (London, 1852)

When citing music, you need to be careful to make sure you know both who wrote the song and who performed it, as it these may sometimes be the same person(s), but this is not always the case. You may also need to know what year it was originally written, and if the specific recording you are citing is from that year or a different one.

  • In MLA and APA Styles, the date that the song was originally written goes in the first date slot, with the date of the specific recording coming later. See the "Music" examples under both MLA - Sample Citations and APA - Sample Citations.
  • In Chicago Style, include the date of the recording or the copyright date. If both are given, include both. You do not need to cite the date or year that a song was composed (i.e., if you are citing a recording or performance of a piece written by Mozart, you do not need to include when he wrote it). See the "Music" example under Chicago - Sample Citations.

Legal documents--such as court decisions, constitutions, laws, etc.--can be tricky to cite. Be sure to review how to cite them in the appropriate style.

  • In MLA Style, legal documents are cited similarly to other sources, with the citation depending on where you found the item. See "Legal documents" under MLA - Sample Citations.
  • In APA and Chicago Styles, the format of legal document citations is very different from how other sources are cited. See "Legal documents" under APA - Sample Citations and Chicago - Sample Citations.