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Finding and Using Primary Sources: Getting Started

A guide on defining, finding, and using primary resources in your research


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Primary sources are those created contemporaneously to whatever period a researcher is studying. In contrast to secondary sources, they don't provide any analysis on a given topic after the fact; instead, they reflect on information or events as they unfolded (for example, a newspaper article, from the time of a particular historical event, discussing the historical event as it happened). Primary sources are especially useful for researchers because they reveal how certain topics and ideas were understood during a specific time and place. The particular primary sources you might use in your research, as well as how you find them, can vary a lot based on your field of study. This guide aims to provide helpful information on where to go about searching for primary sources, both at Duke and beyond.

Examples of Primary Sources (explore the other tabs for more info):

  • Photographs
  • Newspapers
  • Government records
  • Artifacts
  • Pamphlets and other ephemeral material
  • Memoirs and autobiographies

Location-Specific Resources

This guide is meant to cover primary sources in a generalized way. Duke Libraries also has a collection of guides that go over primary sources based on location. Check these out if you're looking for primary sources related to a particular history or place! Keep in mind, too, that many of our subject guides also provide some information about accessing primary sources related to specific subjects.

Location-Specific Primary Source Guides at Duke:

Created in 2021 by Anna Twiddy and Kaylee Alexander.