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Research Guides@Tufts

Family Histories and American Culture

What is a Primary Source?

What is a primary source? A primary source is a document, image, or artifact that provide first hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a historical event and/or topic. Some examples would be letters, manuscripts, diaries, journals, newspaper, speeches, government documents, photographs, data, artifacts/objects, interviews, audio, and video recordings. 

You can find these primary sources online and in print. The rest of the tabs on this guide will mostly be for sources available online, but the items on this page will focus on print items. 

Items Among Our Collection

Finding Print Primary Sources

Primary sources can also be found in published books. You can use the Tufts Catalog to search for them or in Libraries Worldwide. Using subject headings can help you find these primary sources:

  • Sources 
  • Description and travel 
  • Personal narratives
  • Correspondence  

The Library of Congress assigns subject headings to every book published in the US. These subject headings can be helpful in finding items related to your topic. If you'd like to use subject headings for your search, click on Advanced Search on our Tufts Catalog and some search boxes will appear. On the left-hand side, instead of Any Field, click that to change to Subject. Once you have made that change, you can do a search using subject headings. For example, you can do the following searches: 

  • United States--Genealogy​
  • North America--Emigration and immigration--History
  • African Americans--Genealogy--Handbooks, manuals, etc

When you click on a book that seems of interest for your research, you can see other subject headings that correspond to that topic, and you can click on them and will take you to other items that have the same subject heading. 

Tips for Evaluating Primary Sources

When evaluating primary or secondary sources, ask the following questions:

  • How does the author know these details (names, dates, times)? Was the author present at the event or soon on the scene?
  • Where does this information come from - personal experience, eyewitness accounts, or reports written by others?
  • Are the author's conclusions based on a single piece of evidence, or have many sources been taken into account (e.g., diary entries, along with third-party eyewitness accounts, impressions of contemporaries, newspaper accounts)?