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History: Primary Sources

Primary Sources in-depth

Many primary or historical sources can be found in archival collections, however as first-hand accounts from specific events, primary sources can also be found in a variety of formats and places beyond the archives. For example, primary sources can be:

  • Letters
  • Diaries/Journals/Notebooks
  • Recordings (visual and audio)
  • Interviews
  • Speeches
  • Books and articles (published during the specific time period being examined)
  • Data as a direct result of an experiment, or observation
  • Ephemera (pamphlets, buttons, fliers)
  • Newspapers
  • Pictures
  • Television shows, paintings, plays, and other artistic media

If you have to make a research visit, contact the archives and speak with an archivist before you go!

To learn more about using an archive, take a look at the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Guide "Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research."

Discovering Archives, Historical Information, and Oral Histories

Sarah Lawrence College Library Catalog:

The Library Catalog connects you to materials available through Sarah Lawrence College, and beyond. Use the Advanced Search to limit the format to Archival Materials to discover archival collections at Libraries Worldwide.


"ArchiveGrid includes over four million records describing archival materials, bringing together information about historical documents, personal papers, family histories, and more. With over 1,000 different archival institutions represented, ArchiveGrid helps researchers looking for primary source materials held in archives, libraries, museums and historical societies."

See below to search ArchivesGrid 

Search ArchiveGrid
Find archival collections and primary source materials

Librarian Tip:

Search for the individual library, special collection, or archive for more information about how to access collections, and to see if there are any restrictions on their use. Looking for coverage of an event, group, or area? Collections are not always described by the general information, sometimes you will need to parse out specifics and look for archives, papers, or coverage of that information. For instance, are you researching a group? Find out key people in the group and search for them (one of them might have donated their papers to an archive). 

Primary and Secondary Sources

What is a Primary Source?

  • A direct source from a particular event; a first-hand account from someone who was involved in an event; a work that was created during the time period studied.

  • A diary, newspapers from the time an event took place, a personal letter or correspondence.

CHINESE CRUSH FOE IN CHIHKIANG ZONE. (1945, May 11). New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from

What is a Secondary Source?

  • Uses primary sources to make an argument or provide an analysis; not from the direct time of the event that it is describing.

  • Criticisms, commentaries, a document that reviews or interprets a previous event or findings.

Can a Source be Primary and  Secondary?

Simply put, yes. For example a documentary about World War II could be used as both a primary or secondary source. It could be used as a primary source if it has first-hand accounts or if you are studying the art of documentary. It could also be used as a secondary source because it uses primary source material to analyze an event. 


Not sure if what you are looking at is primary or secondary?