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HIST 4210: American Colonial History: Primary Sources

Library and Internet resources for researching papers on the history of colonial America.

What Is a Primary Source?

Primary sources are the "materials on a topic upon which subsequent interpretations or studies are based, anything from firsthand documents such as poems, diaries, court records, and interviews to research results generated by experiments, surveys, ethnographies, and so on."*

Primary sources are records of events as they are first described, usually by witnesses or by people who were involved in the event. Many primary sources were created at the time of the event, but can also include:

  • memoirs, oral interviews, or accounts that were recorded later
  • visual materials, such as photos, original artwork, posters, and films, which can provide insight into how people view their world
  • sets of data, such as census statistics, which have been tabulated, but not interpreted.  

*From Hairston, Maxine and John J. Ruszkiewicz. The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers. 4th ed. New York : HarperCollins College Publishers, 1996, pg. 547.

Examples of Primary Sources

  • Diaries
  • Oral Interviews
  • Letters
  • Speeches
  • Narratives
  • Photographs
  • Audio files
  • Video files
  • Eyewitness accounts
  • Manuscript census records
  • Artifacts 
  • Clothing