Understanding primary sources
If you are seeking to learn about the past, primary sources of information are those that provide first-hand accounts of the events, practices, or conditions you are researching. In general, these are documents that were created by the witnesses or first recorders of these events at about the time they occurred, and include diaries, letters, reports, photographs, creative works, financial records, memos, and newspaper articles (to name just a few types).
Also because primary sources are interdisciplinary it may be helpful to check out the Primary Source section of the History Subject Guide.
Primary sources also include first-hand accounts that were documented later, such as autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories. However, the most useful primary sources are usually considered to be those that were created closest to the time period you’re researching.
Determining which kinds of documents constitute primary sources depends upon the topic you’re researching. (For example, sometimes the same book or article could be considered a primary source for one research topic and a secondary source for a different topic.)
For Example: The painting of Washington Crossing The Delaware, by Emanuel Leutze was painted in 1851.
This painting is both a primary and secondary source depending on what you are researching.
It is a primary source if you are studying the painter Emanuel Leutze or art and paintings from the late 19th century.
It is a secondary source if you are studying the American Revolution or the actual event of Washington crossing the Delaware, this is because the events depicted in the painting took place in 1776, over 50 years before the painting was painted. Emanuel Leutze was not present for the events he is depicting so it cannot be a primary source for those events.
Primary, Secondary, & Tertiary Sources
Primary sources of information are original materials that often convey new ideas, discoveries, or information. These sources originate from the time period under study. Examples of primary sources include:
- original research studies (often in the form of journal articles in peer-reviewed publications), also called empirical studies (e.g. psychology)
- patents, technical reports
- original documents such as diaries, letters, emails, manuscripts, lab data/notes
- newspaper articles from the time period under study
- autobiographies, first-person accounts, case studies
- artifacts and archival material such as official documents, minutes recorded by government agencies and organizations, photographs, coins, fossils, natural specimens
- works of art such as literature, music, architecture, or painting
Secondary sources of information are based on primary sources. They are generally written at a later date and provide some discussion, analysis, or interpretation of the original primary source. Examples of secondary sources include:
- review articles or analyses of research studies about the same topic (also often in peer-reviewed publications)
- biographies, reviews, or critiques of an author
- analyses of original documents or archival material
Tertiary sources of information are based on a collection of primary and secondary sources.
These are sources that index, abstract, organize, compile, or digest other sources. Some reference materials and textbooks are considered tertiary sources when their chief purpose is to list, summarize or simply repackage ideas or other information. Tertiary sources are usually not credited to a particular author.
- textbooks (sometimes considered as secondary sources)
- dictionaries and encyclopedias
- manuals, guidebooks, directories, almanacs
- indexes and bibliographies
TIP: What is considered primary, secondary, or tertiary information may vary according to your field of study. When in doubt, ask your professor.
Primary Source Databases & Websites
American Theatre Archive Project (ATAP)
American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment 1870-1920
Black Drama, 3rd Edition (Alexander Street Press)
Black Work Broadway
Compendium of Renaissance Drama
DIDASKALIA: Ancient Theater Today
Early English Books Online (ProQuest) Tutorial
Early English Books Online - Text Creation Partnership Tutorial
Eighteenth Century Drama (Adam Matthew Digital)
Internet Broadway Database
Lortel Archives-Off-Broadway Database
The Lortel Archives, also known as the Internet Off-Broadway Database, provide a catalogue of shows produced Off-Broadway. For the purposes of The Lortel Archives, Off-Broadway refers to any production that has satisfied the following requirements:
- Played at a Manhattan theatre with a seating capacity of 100-499
- Intended to run a closed-ended or open-ended schedule of performances of more than one week
- Offered itself to critics and general audiences alike
Luna: Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection
Motley Collection of Theatre and Costume Design
Performing Arts Resources- Library of Congress
Play Index (EBSCO)
Portraits of Actors, University of Illinois
Records of Early English Drama (REED)
Archive of Performances of Greek & Roman Drama (APGRD)
Theatre in Context (formerly North American Theatre Online)
Provides access to the major 19th century African American newspapers including The Christian Recorder (1861-1902), Freedom's Journal (1827-1829), The North Star (1847-1851), and Frederick Douglass' Paper (1851-1863).
America's Historical Newspapers (Readex)
Includes full text of selected early American newspapers published between 1690 and 1922. Villanova University has access to series 1 through 5 and 7.
Black Historical Newspapers (ProQuest)
Offers access to the major African American newspapers of the 20th century: the Atlanta Daily World (1931-2003), the Baltimore Afro-American (1893-1988), the Cleveland Call & Post (1934-1991), the Chicago Defender (1910-1975), the Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005), the New York Amsterdam News (1922-1993), the Norfolk Journal & Guide (1921-2003), the Philadelphia Tribune (1912-2001), and the Pittsburgh Courier (1911-2002).
British Library Newspapers (Gale)
Includes over 160 newspaper titles, and spans the years of 1732 to 1950 over five distinct collections. Illuminating diverse and distinct regional attitudes, cultures, and vernaculars, providing an alternative viewpoint to the London-centric national press.
British Periodicals (ProQuest)
Provides access to British periodicals published from the 17th through the early 20th century with the majority of content from the 19th century. Covers a broad range of topics.
Burney Collection Newspapers, 17th-18th Century (Gale)
Features the newspapers and news pamphlets gathered by the Reverend Charles Burney (1757-1817), representing the largest single collection of 17th and 18th century English news media.
Civil War Newspaper Collection (Penn State University Libraries)
Hathi Trust Digital Library
Provides full text access to digital copies of books, pamphlets, and journals available in the public domain. Most of the freely available texts are pre-1923 imprints and government documents. Also allows full-text searching of millions of publications that are still under copyright in order to aid discovery of relevant materials. The Hathi Trust collection largely mirrors content available through Google Books, but only the latter platform permits the exports of public domain content.
Irish Times (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)
Presents a complete archive of the Irish Times back to 1859 (except for the most recent two years) and the Weekly Irish Times (1876-1958).
LGBT Magazine Archive (ProQuest)
Provides full text access to the most influential LGBT+ news resources including The Advocate (full coverage from its inception in 1967), The Pink Paper, Just for Us, The Albatross, and the notable UK publications Gay News and Gay Times.
LGBT Thought and Culture (Alexander Street Press)
Provides coverage of the essential works and archival documents of the global LGBTQ+ movement. Coverage is from the late 19th century to the present and includes archival content in the form of text, letters, speeches, interviews, and ephemera.
New York Times: 1851- (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)
Provides full text access to the complete New York Times archive except for the most recent five years. Use NYTimes.com, Nexis Uni, or ABI/INFORM for access to current content.
Nineteenth Century UK Periodicals (Gale)
Features digital access to a selection of 19th century British magazines on women, children, leisure and sport, humor, anthropology, travel, missionaries, and colonies.
Pennsylvania Gazette: 1728-1800 (Accessible Archives)
Full-text transcription and digitized image of the actual newspaper page as it originally appeared.
Pennsylvania Newspaper Record: Delaware County (Accessible Archives)
Offers full text access to a small collection of 19th century Delaware County newspapers.
Philadelphia Inquirer, 1860-2009 (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)
Provides full text access to the complete Philadelphia Inquirer archive up to 2009: the Philadelphia Inquirer (1860-1934), the Philadelphia Inquirer Public Ledger (1934-1969), and the Philadelphia Inquirer (1969-2009). Use Philadelphia Inquirer (NewsBank) for access to current content.
Times (London) Digital Archive, 1785-2012 (Gale)
Provides a fully searchable facsimile of the Times of London from its inception through about five years ago. The Times is the world's oldest daily newspaper in continuous publication.
The Virginia Gazette was published weekly in Williamsburg from 1736-1780. The news covered all Virginia and included some information for other colonies, Scotland, England etc. Not all the issues survived, and some have surfaced since they were first reproduced on microfilm in the mid-twentieth century that is the basis for the digital version.