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Introduction to Special Collections & University Archives at Rod Library

Here you'll find general information about the various book, manuscripts, and archival collections within SC&UA. You'll also find information about how to use and access these materials, and some policies to keep in mind.

What are primary sources?

Primary sources are original materials that were created at the time of an event or activity. They are generally firsthand accounts - rather than secondhand interpretative accounts - that provide documentary evidence, and according to the Library of Congress, they are "the raw materials of history." 

There are examples of primary sources all around us. Diaries, letters, interviews, records from churches or businesses or schools, photographs, maps, artifacts, audio recordings, memoirs, and many other materials that were created at the time of an event are all primary sources.  They can be published or unpublished works. Because they are often created by somebody who experienced or witnessed it firsthand, primary sources can be very subjective in nature.

Primary sources are useful because they allow researchers to engage with materials from a particular era or activity in a direct, hands on way. In using and analyzing primary sources, researchers can interpret and understand the past.

Secondary sources, on the other hand, are generally removed from the actual event or activity. They are created after the event - sometimes years later - by people who were not directly involved with the event. They can be published or unpublished works. Secondary sources can offer interpretations, summaries, and analyses of past events, and they can be based on primary sources. An encyclopedia article and a book about the civil rights movement written by a historian in 2015 are both examples of secondary sources. 

Additional Resources for Primary Sources and Primary Source Literacy

The following are additional resources to help you understand how to identify, use, and analyze primary sources; to gain primary source literacy; and to use primary sources in your own classroom: