Primary Source Literacy at USC Libraries & Beyond

What are Primary Sources? And how do you analyze them for your Research?

“Primary sources are materials in a variety of formats, created at the time under study, that serve as original evidence documenting a time period, event, people, idea, or work. Primary sources can be printed materials (such as books and ephemera), manuscript/archival materials (such as diaries or ledgers), audio/visual materials (such as recordings or films), artifacts (such as clothes or personal belongings), or born-digital materials (such as emails or digital photographs). Primary sources can be found in analog, digitized, and born-digital forms.”

Association of College & Research Libraries Rare Book and Manuscript Section and Society for American Archivists (ACRL RBMS-SAA) Joint Task Force on Primary Source Literacy. Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy. 2018. 
Primary sources can be defined slightly differently, depending on the discipline. In the humanities, we mostly think of primary sources as first-hand testimonies from sources who witnessed or experienced an event firsthand. Examples for primary sources include, but are not limited to: letters, photographs, diaries, musical scores, ephemera, artistic works, first publications of discoveries, interviews, journal entries, scrapbooks.

Primary sources are not necessarily old or physical materials only. An email, a YouTube video, or an Instagram post can be considered a primary source as well. 

The difference between primary and secondary sources is that primary sources are original documents or sources that were created at the time studied while secondary sources are interpretations and analysis of primary sources.

The video below will help you gain a better understanding of primary sources and learn about the benefits and challenges of working with primary sources for your research.

Watch the following video on what defines primary sources and on how to critically evaluate them for your research.

Let's test your understanding of the differences between primary and secondary sources as well as of the benefits and challenges related to working with primary sources. Take the quiz!

To learn more about primary sources in general and to get access to some great resources, visit the Primary Sources Research Guide.

Image Header: Diamond F. Frida Kahlo : a Body of Work . [publisher not identified]; 2009.​​​​ 
USC Libraries N7433.4.D53 F75 2009



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