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Waidner-Spahr Library

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Primary Sources: Primary Sources in the Humanities & Social Sciences

What are primary sources?

In the humanities (subjects such as art, English and philosophy) and the social sciences (subjects such as anthropology, history, political science, sociology), primary sources are generally defined as material produced at the time of an event, or by a person being studied or significantly involved with the event. 

In literature specifically, a “primary source” or, more specifically a “primary text,” generally means the literary work that is being read/studied/analyzed.  

Examples of primary sources are:

  • personal and professional correspondence
  • professional papers
  • diaries
  • memoirs
  • manuscripts
  • constitutions, treaties, pacts and other political documents
  • photographs
  • works of art and literature
  • artifacts and other objects
  • letters
  • speeches
  • autobiographies
  • oral histories
  • interviews

Depending on when they were written, newspapers and magazine/journal articles may also be considered primary sources. For example, a New York Times article written in 1865 may be considered a primary document when one is studying the U.S. Civil War.

Finding Primary Sources in the Humanities & Social Sciences

Finding Primary Sources

Primary sources can be difficult to find. Most databases do not have an option that allows for direct searching on primary sources. They are often interspersed in books or disorganized in large collections of materials. These guides will help you find primary sources.

Helpful Websites