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Encyclopedia
Primary source is a term used in a number of disciplines to describe source material that is closest to the person, information, period, or idea being studied.

In the study of history
History
History is the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about past events. History can also mean the period of time after writing was invented. Scholars who write about history are called historians...

 as an academic discipline, a primary source (also called original source or evidence) is an artifact, a document, a recording, or other source of information that was created at the time under study. It serves as an original source of information about the topic. Similar definitions are used in library science
Library science
Library science is an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary field that applies the practices, perspectives, and tools of management, information technology, education, and other areas to libraries; the collection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information resources; and the...

, and other areas of scholarship. In journalism, a primary source can be a person with direct knowledge of a situation, or a document created by such a person.

Primary sources are distinguished from secondary sources, which cite, comment on, or build upon primary sources, though the distinction is not a sharp one. A secondary source may also be a primary source and may depend on how it is used. "Primary" and "secondary" are relative terms, with sources judged primary or secondary according to specific historical contexts and what is being studied.

History and historiography



The delineation of sources as primary and secondary first arose in the field of historiography
Historiography
Historiography refers either to the study of the history and methodology of history as a discipline, or to a body of historical work on a specialized topic...

, as historians attempted to identify and classify the sources of historical writing. In scholarly writing, an important objective of classifying sources is to determine the independence and reliability of sources. In contexts such as historical writing, it is almost always advisable to use primary sources if possible, and that "if none are available, it is only with great caution that [the author] may proceed to make use of secondary sources." Many historians believe that primary sources have the most objective connection to the past, and that they "speak for themselves" in ways that cannot be captured through the filter of secondary sources.

Many scholars have commented on the difficulty in producing secondary source narratives from the "raw data" which makes up the past. Historian/philosopher Hayden White
Hayden White
Hayden White is a historian in the tradition of literary criticism, perhaps most famous for his work Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe...

 has written extensively on the ways in which the rhetorical strategies by which historians construct narratives about the past, and what sorts of assumptions about time, history, and events are embedded in the very structure of the historical narrative. In any case, the question of the exact relation between "historical facts" and the content of "written history" has been a topic of discussion among historians since at least the 19th century, when much of the modern profession of history came into being.

As a general rule, modern historians prefer to go back to primary sources, if available, as well as seeking new ones, because primary sources, whether accurate or not, offer new input into historical questions, and most modern history revolves around heavy use of archive
Archive
An archive is a collection of historical records, or the physical place they are located. Archives contain primary source documents that have accumulated over the course of an individual or organization's lifetime, and are kept to show the function of an organization...

s for the purpose of finding useful primary sources. On the other hand, most undergraduate research projects are limited to secondary source material.

Other fields


In scholarly writing, the objective of classifying sources is to determine the independence and reliability of sources. Though the terms primary source and secondary source originated in historiography
Historiography
Historiography refers either to the study of the history and methodology of history as a discipline, or to a body of historical work on a specialized topic...

as a way to trace the history of historical ideas, they have been applied to many other fields. For example, these ideas may be used to trace the history of scientific theories, literary elements, and other information that is passed from one author to another.

In scientific literature
Scientific literature
Scientific literature comprises scientific publications that report original empirical and theoretical work in the natural and social sciences, and within a scientific field is often abbreviated as the literature. Academic publishing is the process of placing the results of one's research into the...

, a primary source is the original publication of a scientist's new data, results, and theories. In political history
Political history
Political history is the narrative and analysis of political events, ideas, movements, and leaders. It is distinct from, but related to, other fields of history such as Diplomatic history, social history, economic history, and military history, as well as constitutional history and public...

, primary sources are documents such as official reports, speeches, pamphlets, posters, or letters by participants, official election returns, and eyewitness accounts. In the history of ideas
History of ideas
The history of ideas is a field of research in history that deals with the expression, preservation, and change of human ideas over time. The history of ideas is a sister-discipline to, or a particular approach within, intellectual history...

 or intellectual history
Intellectual history
Note: this article concerns the discipline of intellectual history, and not its object, the whole span of human thought since the invention of writing. For clarifications about the latter topic, please consult the writings of the intellectual historians listed here and entries on individual...

, the main primary sources are books, essays and letters written by intellectuals.

A study of cultural history
Cultural history
The term cultural history refers both to an academic discipline and to its subject matter.Cultural history, as a discipline, at least in its common definition since the 1970s, often combines the approaches of anthropology and history to look at popular cultural traditions and cultural...

 could include fictional sources such as novels or plays. In a broader sense primary sources also include physical objects like photographs, newsreels, coins, paintings or buildings created at the time. Historians may also take archaeological artifacts
Artifact (archaeology)
An artifact or artefact is "something made or given shape by man, such as a tool or a work of art, esp an object of archaeological interest"...

 and oral reports and interviews into consideration. Written sources may be divided into three main types.
  • Narrative
    Narrative
    A narrative is a constructive format that describes a sequence of non-fictional or fictional events. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, "to recount", and is related to the adjective gnarus, "knowing" or "skilled"...

     sources
    or literary sources tell a story or message. They are not limited to fictional sources (which can be sources of information for contemporary attitudes), but include diaries
    Diaries
    As a proper noun, Diaries, the plural of diary, can refer to:*Diaries: 1971-1976, an 1981 documentary by Ed Pincus*Diaries 1969–1979: The Python Years, a 2006 book by Michael Palin...

    , films, biographies, leading philosophical works, scientific works, and so on.
  • Diplomatic sources include charter
    Charter
    A charter is the grant of authority or rights, stating that the granter formally recognizes the prerogative of the recipient to exercise the rights specified...

    s and other legal documents which usually follow a set format.
  • Social documents are records created by organizations, such as registers of births, tax records, and so on.


In the study of historiography
Historiography
Historiography refers either to the study of the history and methodology of history as a discipline, or to a body of historical work on a specialized topic...

, when the study of history is itself subject to historical scrutiny, a secondary source becomes a primary source. For a biography of a historian, that historian's publications would be primary sources. Documentary films can be considered a secondary source or primary source, depending on how much the filmmaker modifies the original sources.

The Lafayette College Library, for example, provides the following synopsis of primary sources in several basic areas of study:
"The definition of a primary source varies depending upon the academic discipline and the context in which it is used.
  • In the humanities
    Humanities
    The humanities are academic disciplines that study the human condition, using methods that are primarily analytical, critical, or speculative, as distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the natural sciences....

    , a primary source could be defined as something that was created either during the time period being studied or afterward by individuals reflecting on their involvement in the events of that time.
  • In the social sciences
    Social sciences
    Social science is the field of study concerned with society. "Social science" is commonly used as an umbrella term to refer to a plurality of fields outside of the natural sciences usually exclusive of the administrative or managerial sciences...

    , the definition of a primary source would be expanded to include numerical data that has been gathered to analyze relationships between people, events, and their environment.
  • In the natural sciences, a primary source could be defined as a report of original findings or ideas. These sources often appear in the form of research articles with sections on methods and results."

Finding primary sources


Although many documents that are primary sources remain in private hands, the usual location for them is an archive
Archive
An archive is a collection of historical records, or the physical place they are located. Archives contain primary source documents that have accumulated over the course of an individual or organization's lifetime, and are kept to show the function of an organization...

. These can be public or private. Documents relating to one area are usually spread over a large number of different archives. These can be distant from the original source of the document. For example, the Huntington Library in California houses a large number of documents from the United Kingdom.

In the US, digital primary sources can be retrieved from a number of places. The Library of Congress
Library of Congress
The Library of Congress is the research library of the United States Congress, de facto national library of the United States, and the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. Located in three buildings in Washington, D.C., it is the largest library in the world by shelf space and...

 maintains several online Digital Collections where they can be retrieved. Examples of these are American Memory and the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC). The National Archives and Records Administration
National Archives and Records Administration
The National Archives and Records Administration is an independent agency of the United States government charged with preserving and documenting government and historical records and with increasing public access to those documents, which comprise the National Archives...

 also has such a tool, called Access to Archival Databases (AAD).

In the UK, the National Archives provides a consolidated search of its own catalogue and a wide variety of other archives listed on the Access to Archives index. Digital copies of various classes of documents at the National Archives (including wills) are available from DocumentsOnline. Most of the available documents relate to England and Wales. Some digital copies of primary sources are available from the National Archives of Scotland
National Archives of Scotland
Based in Edinburgh, the National Archives of Scotland are the national archives of Scotland. The NAS claims to have one of the most varied collection of archives in Europe...

. Many County Record Offices collections are included in Access to Archives, while others have their own on-line catalogues. Many County Record Offices will supply digital copies of documents.

In the Republic of Ireland
Republic of Ireland
Ireland , described as the Republic of Ireland , is a sovereign state in Europe occupying approximately five-sixths of the island of the same name. Its capital is Dublin. Ireland, which had a population of 4.58 million in 2011, is a constitutional republic governed as a parliamentary democracy,...

, available digital documents include the censuses of 1901 and 1911 which are available from the National Archives of Ireland
National Archives of Ireland
The National Archives of Ireland is the official repository for the state records of the Republic of Ireland. Established by the National Archives Act 1986, it came into existence in 1988, taking over the functions of the State Paper Office and the Public Record Office of Ireland. The National...

.

In Australia, the National Archives of Australia
National Archives of Australia
The National Archives of Australia is a body established by the Government of Australia for the purpose of preserving Commonwealth Government records. It is an Executive Agency of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and reports to the Cabinet Secretary, Senator Joe Ludwig.The national...

 has digitised a number of classes of records and will produce digitised copies of suitable documents on demand.

Using primary sources


History as an academic discipline is based on primary sources, as evaluated by the community of scholars, who report their findings in books, articles and papers. Arthur Marwick
Arthur Marwick
Arthur John Brereton Marwick was a professor in history. Born in Edinburgh, he was a graduate of Edinburgh University and Balliol College, Oxford. - Career :...

 says "Primary sources are absolutely fundamental to history." Ideally, a historian will use all available primary sources created by the people involved, at the time being studied. In practice some sources have been destroyed, while others are not available for research. Perhaps the only eyewitness reports of an event may be memoir
Memoir
A memoir , is a literary genre, forming a subclass of autobiography – although the terms 'memoir' and 'autobiography' are almost interchangeable. Memoir is autobiographical writing, but not all autobiographical writing follows the criteria for memoir set out below...

s, autobiographies, or oral interviews taken years later. Sometimes the only documents relating to an event or person in the distant past were written decades or centuries later. This is a common problem in classical studies, where sometimes only a summary of a book has survived. Potential difficulties with primary sources have the result that history is usually taught in schools using secondary sources.

Historians studying the modern period with the intention of publishing an academic article prefer to go back to available primary sources and to seek new (in other words, forgotten or lost) ones. Primary sources, whether accurate or not, offer new input into historical questions and most modern history revolves around heavy use of archive
Archive
An archive is a collection of historical records, or the physical place they are located. Archives contain primary source documents that have accumulated over the course of an individual or organization's lifetime, and are kept to show the function of an organization...

s and special collections for the purpose of finding useful primary sources. A work on history is not likely to be taken seriously as scholarship if it only cites secondary sources, as it does not indicate that original research has been done.

However, primary sources - particularly those from before the 20th century - may have hidden challenges. "Primary sources, in fact, are usually fragmentary, ambiguous and very difficult to analyse and interpret." Obsolete meanings of familiar words and social context are among the traps that await the newcomer to historical studies. For this reason, the interpretation of primary texts is typically taught as part of an advanced college or postgraduate history course, although advanced self-study or informal training is also possible.

The following questions are asked about primary sources:
  • What is the tone?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What is the purpose of the publication?
  • What assumptions does the author make?
  • What are the bases of the author's conclusions?
  • Does the author agree or disagree with other authors of the subject?
  • Does the content agree with what you know or have learned about the issue?
  • Where was the source made? (questions of systemic bias
    Systemic bias
    Systemic bias is the inherent tendency of a process to favor particular outcomes. The term is a neologism that generally refers to human systems; the analogous problem in non-human systems is often called systematic bias, and leads to systematic error in measurements or estimates.-Bias in...

    )


In journalism
Journalism
Journalism is the practice of investigation and reporting of events, issues and trends to a broad audience in a timely fashion. Though there are many variations of journalism, the ideal is to inform the intended audience. Along with covering organizations and institutions such as government and...

, education
Education
Education in its broadest, general sense is the means through which the aims and habits of a group of people lives on from one generation to the next. Generally, it occurs through any experience that has a formative effect on the way one thinks, feels, or acts...

, and other fields, these are sometimes known as the five Ws
Five Ws
In journalism, the Five Ws is a concept in news style, research, and in police investigations that are regarded as basics in information-gathering. It is a formula for getting the "full" story on something...

 - who, what, when, where and why

Strengths and weaknesses of primary sources


In many fields and contexts, such as historical writing, it is almost always advisable to use primary sources if possible, and that "if none are available, it is only with great caution that [the author] may proceed to make use of secondary sources." In addition, primary sources avoid the problem inherent in secondary sources, where each new author may distort and put their own spin on the findings of prior cited authors. However, a primary source is not necessarily more of an authority or better than a secondary source. There can be bias
Bias
Bias is an inclination to present or hold a partial perspective at the expense of alternatives. Bias can come in many forms.-In judgement and decision making:...

 and other tactic used to twist historical information.
These errors may be corrected in secondary sources, which are often subjected to peer review
Peer review
Peer review is a process of self-regulation by a profession or a process of evaluation involving qualified individuals within the relevant field. Peer review methods are employed to maintain standards, improve performance and provide credibility...

, can be well documented, and are often written by historians working in institutions where methodological accuracy is important to the future of the author's career and reputation. Historians consider the accuracy and objectiveness
Objectivity (science)
Objectivity in science is a value that informs how science is practiced and how scientific truths are created. It is the idea that scientists, in attempting to uncover truths about the natural world, must aspire to eliminate personal biases, a priori commitments, emotional involvement, etc...

 of the primary sources they are using and historians subject both primary and secondary sources to a high level of scrutiny. A primary source such as a journal
Diary
A diary is a record with discrete entries arranged by date reporting on what has happened over the course of a day or other period. A personal diary may include a person's experiences, and/or thoughts or feelings, including comment on current events outside the writer's direct experience. Someone...

 entry (or the online version, a blog
Blog
A blog is a type of website or part of a website supposed to be updated with new content from time to time. Blogs are usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. Entries are commonly displayed in...

), at best, may only reflect one individual's opinion
Opinion
In general, an opinion is a subjective belief, and is the result of emotion or interpretation of facts. An opinion may be supported by an argument, although people may draw opposing opinions from the same set of facts. Opinions rarely change without new arguments being presented...

 on events, which may or may not be truthful, accurate, or complete. Participants and eyewitness
Witness
A witness is someone who has firsthand knowledge about an event, or in the criminal justice systems usually a crime, through his or her senses and can help certify important considerations about the crime or event. A witness who has seen the event first hand is known as an eyewitness...

es may misunderstand events or distort their reports (deliberately or unconsciously) to enhance their own image or importance. Such effects can increase over time, as people create a narrative that may not be accurate. For any source, primary or secondary, it is important for the researcher to evaluate the amount and direction of bias. As an example, a government report may be an accurate and unbiased description of events, but it can be censored
Censorship
thumb|[[Book burning]] following the [[1973 Chilean coup d'état|1973 coup]] that installed the [[Military government of Chile |Pinochet regime]] in Chile...

 or altered for propaganda
Propaganda
Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position so as to benefit oneself or one's group....

 or cover-up
Cover-up
A cover-up is an attempt, whether successful or not, to conceal evidence of wrong-doing, error, incompetence or other embarrassing information...

 purposes. The facts can be distorted to present the opposing sides in a negative light. Barrister
Barrister
A barrister is a member of one of the two classes of lawyer found in many common law jurisdictions with split legal professions. Barristers specialise in courtroom advocacy, drafting legal pleadings and giving expert legal opinions...

s are taught that evidence in a court case may be truthful, but it may be distorted to support (or oppose) the position of one of the parties.

Classifying sources


Many sources can be considered either primary and secondary, depending on the context in which they are examined. Moreover, the distinction between primary and secondary sources is subjective and contextual, so that precise definitions are difficult to make. Investigative journalism
Investigative journalism
Investigative journalism is a form of journalism in which reporters deeply investigate a single topic of interest, often involving crime, political corruption, or corporate wrongdoing. An investigative journalist may spend months or years researching and preparing a report. Investigative journalism...

, for example, is a primary source of information. A book review, when it contains the opinion of the reviewer about the book rather than a summary of the book, becomes a primary source.

If a historical text discusses old documents to derive a new historical conclusion, it is considered to be a primary source for the new conclusion. Examples in which a source can be both primary and secondary include an obituary or a survey of several volumes of a journal counting the frequency of articles on a certain topic.

Whether a source is regarded as primary or secondary in a given context may change, depending upon the present state of knowledge within the field. For example, if a document refers to the contents of a previous but undiscovered letter, that document may be considered "primary", since it is the closest known thing to an original source; but if the letter is later found, it may then be considered "secondary"

In some instances, the reason for identifying a text as the "primary source" may devolve from the fact that no copy of the original source material exists, or that it is the oldest extant source for the information cited. Alternatively, when a printed version of a document is made from an electronic version, the electronic version may be termed the primary document.

Whether a source is primary also depends on its age. For example, encyclopedias are generally considered tertiary source
Tertiary source
In scholarship, a tertiary source is a term used to describe a work which is chiefly a selection or compilation of other primary and secondary sources. The distinction between a secondary and tertiary source is relative, whereas the difference between primary and secondary sources is more absolute...

s, but Pliny's Naturalis Historia
Naturalis Historia
The Natural History is an encyclopedia published circa AD 77–79 by Pliny the Elder. It is one of the largest single works to have survived from the Roman Empire to the modern day and purports to cover the entire field of ancient knowledge, based on the best authorities available to Pliny...

, originally published in the 1st century, is a primary source for information about the Roman era.

Forgeries


Historians must occasionally contend with forged documents, purporting to be primary sources. These forgeries have usually been constructed with a fraudulent purpose, such as promulgating legal rights, supporting false pedigrees, or promoting particular interpretations of historic events. The investigation of documents to determine their authenticity is diplomatics
Diplomatics
Diplomatics , or Diplomatic , is the study that revolves around documentation. It is a study that focuses on the analysis of document creation, its inner constitutions and form, the means of transmitting information, and the relationship documented facts have with their creator...

.

For centuries, Pope
Pope
The Pope is the Bishop of Rome, a position that makes him the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church . In the Catholic Church, the Pope is regarded as the successor of Saint Peter, the Apostle...

s used the forged Donation of Constantine
Donation of Constantine
The Donation of Constantine is a forged Roman imperial decree by which the emperor Constantine I supposedly transferred authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the pope. During the Middle Ages, the document was often cited in support of the Roman Church's claims to...

 to bolster the secular power of the Papacy. Among the earliest forgeries are false Anglo-Saxon Charters
Anglo-Saxon Charters
Anglo-Saxon charters are documents from the early medieval period in Britain which typically make a grant of land or record a privilege. The earliest surviving charters were drawn up in the 670s; the oldest surviving charters granted land to the Church, but from the eighth century surviving...

, a number of 11th and 12th century forgeries produced by monasteries
Monastery
Monastery denotes the building, or complex of buildings, that houses a room reserved for prayer as well as the domestic quarters and workplace of monastics, whether monks or nuns, and whether living in community or alone .Monasteries may vary greatly in size – a small dwelling accommodating only...

 and abbey
Abbey
An abbey is a Catholic monastery or convent, under the authority of an Abbot or an Abbess, who serves as the spiritual father or mother of the community.The term can also refer to an establishment which has long ceased to function as an abbey,...

s to support a claim to land where the original document had been lost or never existed. One particularly unusual forgery of a primary source was perpetrated by Sir Edward Dering, who placed false monumental brass
Monumental brass
Monumental brass is a species of engraved sepulchral memorial which in the early part of the 13th century began to partially take the place of three-dimensional monuments and effigies carved in stone or wood...

es in a parish church
Parish church
A parish church , in Christianity, is the church which acts as the religious centre of a parish, the basic administrative unit of episcopal churches....

. In 1986, Hugh Trevor-Roper "authenticated" the Hitler diaries
Hitler Diaries
In April 1983, the West German news magazine Stern published excerpts from what purported to be the diaries of Adolf Hitler, known as the Hitler Diaries , which were subsequently revealed to be forgeries...

, which were later proved to be forgeries. Recently, forged documents have been placed within the UK National Archives in the hope of establishing a false provenance
Provenance
Provenance, from the French provenir, "to come from", refers to the chronology of the ownership or location of an historical object. The term was originally mostly used for works of art, but is now used in similar senses in a wide range of fields, including science and computing...

. However, historians dealing with recent centuries rarely encounter forgeries of any importance.

See also


  • Historiography
    Historiography
    Historiography refers either to the study of the history and methodology of history as a discipline, or to a body of historical work on a specialized topic...

  • Source criticism
    Source criticism
    A source criticism is a published source evaluation . An information source may be a document, a person, a speech, a fingerprint, a photo, an observation or anything used in order to obtain knowledge. In relation to a given purpose, a given information source may be more or less valid, reliable or...

  • Source literature
    Source literature
    Source literature is a term with different meanings. Literature is one kind of information source. In a way is all literature a kind of 'source literature'. It might, for example, be cited and used as sources in academic writings...

  • Source text
    Source text
    A source text is a text from which information or ideas are derived. In translation, a source text is the original text that is to be translated into another language.-Description:...

  • Historical document
    Historical document
    Historical documents are documents that contain important information about a person, place, or event.Most famous historical documents are either laws, accounts of battles , or the exploits of the powerful...

  • Historical editorial
    Historical editorial
    A historical editorial is an editorial written by a person contemporary to a historical event. To those studying history, a historical editorial may offer insight into commonly-held views about historically important events from a first hand perspective.-External links:* Houghton Mifflin Company. ...



  • Secondary source
    Secondary source
    In scholarship, a secondary source is a document or recording that relates or discusses information originally presented elsewhere. A secondary source contrasts with a primary source, which is an original source of the information being discussed; a primary source can be a person with direct...

  • Tertiary source
    Tertiary source
    In scholarship, a tertiary source is a term used to describe a work which is chiefly a selection or compilation of other primary and secondary sources. The distinction between a secondary and tertiary source is relative, whereas the difference between primary and secondary sources is more absolute...

  • Original research
  • UNISIST model
    UNISIST model
    The UNISIST model of information dissemination was proposed in 1971 by the United Nations. UNISIST is a model of the social system of communication, which consists of knowledge producers, intermediaries, and users. These groups of people are different kinds of professionals...

  • Scientific journalism
    Scientific journalism
    Scientific journalism is the practice of including primary sources along with journalistic stories. The concept has been championed by Julian Assange of Wikileaks and is inspired by the philosophy of Karl Popper.-Technology:...

  • Scholarly method
    Scholarly method
    Scholarly method or scholarship is the body of principles and practices used by scholars to make their claims about the world as valid and trustworthy as possible, and to make them known to the scholarly public.-Methods:...