What are Primary Sources?
Primary sources are original records or documents created by someone who lived at the time of the event you are studying. These sources enable you to get as close as possible to what actually happened.
Examples of primary sources include:
- historical manuscripts
- parliamentary debates and papers
- Bills, Acts and Explanatory Memoranda
- old magazine and newspaper articles
- speeches and interviews
- letters, diaries, memoirs and autobiographies
- audio recordings
- unpublished lab notes
Note that the status of some sorts of material depends on the discipline and the context. Historians would argue that statistical data from the past constitutes primary source material. Geographers and planners would not generally regard contemporary statistics (such as those compiled and published by the ABS) as primary sources.
Journal articles are not usually regarded as primary sources. However, there is a significant class of journal articles which fit into this category. These are articles which provide the details of a particular research project or experiment.
To be regarded as a primary source, such articles should include sufficient information to enable a subsequent researcher to reconstruct the steps involved in the original investigation. As a general rule, this means that the article must include the following:
- an introduction that sets out the aims of the report and the hypothesis proposed.
- a section that details the methods and/or materials used.
- the results obtained.
- a discussion.
- a conclusion indicating whether the hypothesis was proven or unproven.
Primary Sources for Law
In legal research and practice, the primary source is the Law itself.
In Australia this refers to the Legislation created by Parliament and Cases decided by the courts.
To discover how to find primary materials in Law, check out the appropriate links below.
Why are Primary Sources useful?
Primary sources are invaluable for a number of reasons. They serve as the raw material for serious enquiry.
Later sources (termed secondary or tertiary sources) add layers of interpretation which separate you from the actual event. Close reading of primary sources will often allow you to draw your own conclusions.
Published and unpublished materials
Primary sources come in two forms: published and unpublished materials. Published editions can usually be found using library catalogues. Where a source is unpublished, you will need to refer to specialised finding aids.
Major libraries across Australia collect unpublished primary sources. The National Library of Australia in Canberra has a collection of over 1.8 million manuscripts (hand-written documents). The State Library of NSW also has a large collection, with items dating back to the first years of European settlement. In addition to major libraries, government archives, such as the NSW State Archives, have their own holdings.
Many websites gather unpublished primary sources. This page features many of these websites. Others may be found using internet search tools such as Google.
Evaluating Primary Sources
Primary sources are not necessarily objective. They represent the views of specific individuals at a single point in time.
Even official records (such as census documents) are not free from bias. If you work extensively with primary sources, you need to develop some rules for critical assessment.
There is a useful page on Evaluating primary sources on the Lafayette College site in the US. This page gives general advice.