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BIS 300: Interdisciplinary Inquiry (Kurian): Primary sources

What's a primary source?

India Parition Day 1947Primary 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, photographs, audio recordings, moving pictures or video recordings, research data, and objects or artifacts such as works of art. 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.

(From: Using primary sources on the Web. Site includes strategies for reading and evaluating primary sources).

Remember, different disciplines use primary sources in different ways. See examples of primary sources used in discplines like Humanities and Sciences, at Primary vs. Secondary Sources.

Image: CLU/Associated Press. India Partition Day 1947. August 12, 1947. Associated Press Images Collection,, Accessed 17 January 2018.

News Databases

Digital Archives


Evaluating Primary Sources

Context (who produced it and why) is important, but may not always be obvious from an initial look at the source. Some questions you might want to ask of your sources...

  • Who created the source and why?

  • What do you know about the source in which it was published?  If a magazine or newspaper, is it considered liberal, conservative, middle of the road, etc.?

  • Did the recorder have firsthand knowledge of the event? Or, did the recorder report what others saw and heard?

  • Was the recorder a neutral party, or did the creator have opinions or interests that might have influenced what was recorded?

  • Did the recorder wish to inform or persuade others? (Check the words in the source. The words may tell you whether the recorder was trying to be objective or persuasive.)

  • What are the unstated assumptions?

  • What is the underlying ideology? Who is the article/image/artifact sympathetic to?

For help in analyzing your sources, check out these document analysis worksheets, from the Education Staff of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Images & Maps

Check out these helpful tips on analyzing images created by Denise Hattwig, Curator, Digital Scholarship + Collections, UWB/CC library.

Data & Government Documents

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