Skip to content

Primary sources for humanities: Introduction

A guide to primary sources for humanities at Monash University Library

Primary vs secondary sources

Emily Bronte's diary entry

Emily Bronte's diary paper, 1837 (pen and ink on paper). Courtesy of Bridgeman Education.

Primary sources

 

What are primary sources?

 

A primary source is a document or object that was written or created at the time under investigation. It provides a first hand account or personal viewpoint of an event or time period. It could be an eyewitness account, diary entry, newspaper report or interview of an event that reflects the time period in which it was conducted. 

*A primary source is a work written during the period that you are writing about that gives you direct or primary knowledge of that period. "Primary source" is frequently used to describe an original document - such as the Constitution - or memoirs and diaries of historical interest, or a work of literature, that over the years has been the subject of much written commentary.

Artworks, photographs, music, music scores, poems, government records and artefacts can also be primary sources.

*Spatt, B Writing from sources, 7th Ed, Bedford St Martins, Boston p.365.

 

Why use primary sources?

Primary sources are necessary to accurately gain an account of an historical event or period under study. Without access to original sources, researchers rely on secondary sources for information and secondary accounts are subject to an author's interpretation. They cannot be viewed without consideration given to an author's bias. Primary sources where available should be considered when undergoing research. There will be occasions when primary sources are not available and secondary sources are required.

 

Example

A recent discovery of a letter written by a young bank clerk who provided an eyewitness account of Ned Kelly's siege at Glenrowan has shed new light on the historic event. The author, Donald Sutherland, wrote to his parents in Scotland, describing Ned as "tame and conversed freely with those who knew him". He provided an account of a mild captured Kelly who had been the terror of the Colony. "Poor Ned I was really sorry for him to see him lying pierced by bullets and still showing no signs of pain. His 3 sisters were there also, Mrs Skillion, Kate Kelly and a younger one."*

This letter is a primary source providing an eyewitness account of a significant event in Victoria's history. It has been donated to the State Library of Victoria. Its discovery will have an impact on future research on the Kelly gang and indeed Victoria's history of the time.

*The Guardian, Australian edition, Ned Kelly's capture: full text of letter written by witness, Wednesday 9 October 2013, theguardian.com
 

 

Comparisons of primary and secondary sources

 

Subject Primary Source Secondary Source
Art

original artwork

document describing the artwork

History

indigenous artefact

letter from an eyewitness                 

book describing indigenous artefacts

book or article that references the letter

Literature A Shakespeare sonnet Book on Shakespeare that references sonnets
Archaeology Egyptian mummy book or article about the process of mumification                  
Social Sciences                      original research study review of several studies on the same topic
Theatre videotape of a performance                        biography of a playwright            

 

Secondary sources

Secondary sources describe, analyse or evaluate primary sources. Any document, including books, articles, reports, dictionaries, encyclopedias or textbooks that refers to a primary source is a secondary source. Secondary sources often use primary sources to argue a contention or persuade the reader to hold a certain opinion which is why it is important to consider primary sources to gain an original or unbiased view. However secondary sources are also important because they can provide a perspective on events once time has passed, or draw comparisons with other events that is only possible following the passage of time.