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Writing 101 presented by Lee Sorensen: Primary Sources

Sarah Town - W 101

What is a Primary Source

Historical Primary Source

In the field of history , a primary source is a document that gives historical evidence and, typically, was created at the time being studied, by someone with first-hand knowledge. 


  • Letter or diary
  • Photograph
  • Play script
  • Census schedule or tax ledger
  • Congressional debate or court record
  • Manuscript or archive
  • Newspaper, radio and tv reports from a specific time period

Scientific Primary Source

In science a primary source is an original report of an experiment or observation by the researcher.


  • Conference Papers
  • Dissertations
  • Lab Notebooks
  • Notes
  • Patents
  • Proceedings
  • Studies or Surveys
  • Technical Reports
  • Theses

Finding Primary Sources

Duke Library Catalog

  • Use Subject Headings with
    • -diaries
    • -personal narratives
    • -sources
    • -correspondence
    • -interviews 
  • Examples
    • Motion picture producers and directors--United States--Interviews
    • Authors, American--20th Century--Correspondence
    • Diaries--Women

Rubenstein Library

  • Primary sources in many formats--letters, diaries, oral histories, newspapers, pamphlets, zines, etc.--are available in Duke's Rubenstein Library, 316 Perkins.
  • Reference staff are available to help researchers locate appropriate material.

Primary Source Databases


Numerical & Geospatial Data

Government Documents