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Waidner-Spahr Library

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 literary studies, the terms “primary source” and “primary text” are sometimes used interchangeably, but they mean different things.  A primary text is the literary work that is being read/studied/analyzed (e.g. a novel set during World War II).  Primary sources are used to enhance understanding of the primary text (e.g. a speech by the U.S. president or U.K. prime minister delivered during the war).

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.

The worksheets below can help you to think about what types of primary sources might exist regarding your topic.

Helpful Websites