Skip to main content

History of the U.S. West: Primary sources

Types of sources

Primary sources are generally created by a participant in, or direct observer of, an event. They are usually first-person sources, and they reflect the observer’s or participant’s point of view. Examples are photographs, books or articles published during a time under study, recorded or transcribed interviews, government documents, films, letters, diaries, works of art, and published reports of experiments conducted by scientists or social scientists. Primary sources do not have to be used in their original form, however. They may be reproduced electronically, printed or published later and still be considered primary sources.

Secondary sources include interpretation or analysis of events by an author who was not present. This is often done by studying primary sources. Secondary sources are a step removed from an event or work of art or time period. Examples include books and articles, documentary films, reference books, and textbooks, and these may be printed, on microfilm, on DVD, or digital.

In different fields, typical examples of primary and secondary sources can vary, but in history a primary source might be a handwritten letter held by a library’s special collections department or the text of the same letter printed in its entirety in a published book. Or it could be a contemporary newspaper article reporting on an event. A secondary source could be an article or book that uses that letter or newspaper article as a source through which something about the life of a person or an event can be interpreted or drawn.

Both primary and secondary sources are important, and either or both types may be appropriate for historical research.


Special Collections

Special Collections holds the library’s rare books and archival collections, including a sizeable Texana collection, books related to the history of Texas. Use the search box on the Special Collections site to find materials.

Google Books and Hathi Trust