Primary sources

Learning objectives

At the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • recognise examples of primary sources.
  • describe the advantages of using primary sources.
  • find primary sources relevant to your research.

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  • unpublished lab notes.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

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.

Look at this example of a scientific article. Why do you think that this article qualifies as a primary source? What distinguishes it from other articles which report quantitative research?

S J Marsden and G S Bellamy (2000) Microhabitat characteristics of feeding sites used by diving duck Aythya wintering on the grossly polluted Manchester Ship Canal, UK, Environmental Conservation, 27 (3), 278-283.

Can you think of examples (from your own reading) of articles that do not qualify as primary sources?

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.

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.

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.

Perhaps the best starting place is the National Library's Trove.

A number of institutions allow you to search their holdings online:

You can find institutions with archival holdings using the Directory of Archives of Australia.

Databases indexing primary sources

The Library subscribes to the Australian Historic Records Register (AHRR). This is a database which contains information on Australian manuscripts and unpublished materials in private hands. Coverage includes letters, diaries, photographs, financial records, posters, sketches, recipe books, catalogues and other material.

Summary

This module dealt with the following topics:

  • different types of primary sources.
  • the benefits of using primary sources.
  • the Australian libraries with large holdings of primary sources.
  • databases which index Australian primary source collections.

Statistics