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We welcome your interest in the Research Wiki.We know you are busy, but when time permits, we also welcome any contributions you may wish to make. If you have questions or suggestions, please let us know so we can improve our Wiki. We especially value contributors with your depth of knowledge and experience.Jbparker 06:45, 21 October 2009 (UTC)

Brett -- What an excellent description of a primary source! What is your intent with what you have written here? Are you planning to make it a new page in the Wiki? Or is this going to be part of a larger article? Thanks for taking the time to write. We hope you will continue to do so. I can tell from what you have written here, you are a thoughtful and articulate writer. Welcome! Jbparker 15:12, 26 November 2009 (UTC)

Thanks for the kind words. Lise Embley asked me to create a page on primary sources but I don't really know how to create a new page so I put it here until I can figure that out.

Exactly what we needed, Brett!  I've created an article entitled "What is a Primary Source?" and copied this text. After I can check to make sure it's working properly, I'll delete it from here.  Lise 16:33, 26 November 2009 (UTC)

Great work, you two! And by the way, Happy Thanksgiving! Jbparker 17:38, 26 November 2009 (UTC)

Primary Sources


A *primary* source is any record created during the time you are researching - an eyewitness account. Primary sources can take many forms, such as newspapers, letters, journals, tax lists, court documents, church records, or a census. Even published books can be considered primary sources if they were printed during the time of your study.

A *secondary* source is a record created later by someone who did not experience the time period or events that you are studying. Most histories are secondary sources.

For example, if George Washington wrote an account of the American Revolution it would be a primary source because he experienced it. If he wrote an account of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth it would be a secondary source because it occurred long before Washington's life. Both accounts would have been written more than two hundred years ago, but only the one that reflected Washington's own time would be a primary source.


Like eyewitness accounts of modern events, each primary source will only give one perspective and may be incomplete or inaccurate. As you conduct research, consider the following:

-Who wrote the document and why? How would these motives shape the information in the report? -What was the intended audience for this document? Was it meant to be published or kept private? Was it official or personal? -How does the writer know what (s)he has reported? -What conventions/norms exist that shape the information? (church records preserve different information than tax lists or a census) -What other sources might provide additional information?


Published versions of primary sources are useful and are sometimes the only way researchers can access necessary information. But beware. They are not always reliable. Errors can occur in even the most careful transcriptions. Sometimes transcribers skip information they consider unnecessary. Sometimes they make "corrections" that actually introduce errors. And even the best translations lose something in the process. In short, use them with caution and recognize that quality will vary. Try to find the most reliable versions of documents that you can.

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