Primary Sources


Primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. While primary sources are often the core of a research paper or project, researchers also depend on other types of sources to provide context, perspective, and support to analysis of primary sources. A primary source is an original material created during the time under study. Primary sources can be original documents (such as letters, speeches, diaries), creative works (such as art, novels, music and film), published materials of the times (newspapers, magazines, memoirs, etc.), institutional and government documents (treaties, laws, court cases, marriage records) or relics and artifacts.

Secondary sources describe, discuss, interpret, comment upon, analyze, evaluate, summarize, and process primary sources. A secondary source is generally one or more steps removed from the event or time period and are written or produced after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. Finding Primary Sources Primary Sources from DocsTeach Thousands of online primary source documents from the National Archives to bring the past to life as classroom teaching tools. National Archives Catalog Find online primary source materials for classroom & student projects from the National Archive's online catalog (OPA). Beginning Research Activities Student activities designed to help. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later. Primary sources can be found in all of Yale’s libraries and museums as well as in online resources.

Primary Sources Websites

In general, a primary source is closest to the event, person, idea, or period that you are studying.

Secondary sources discuss and analyze primary sources; they're called secondary sources because they are at least one step removed from the primary source.


So, if you're writing on Emily Dickinson's 'Hope is the thing with feathers,' the poem is your primary source and a critical article discussing the poem is a secondary source.

Sources that are even further removed (e.g., because they synthesize and describe material from secondary sources) are called tertiary sources. An encyclopedia article or a Wikipedia entry would be considered tertiary sources.

Are there exceptions?
Absolutely! Sometimes what we think of as secondary sources become primary sources, depending on how you are using them. For example, if you are analyzing how literary scholars from the 1950s talked about women's literature, you would be using scholarly articles and books from that period as primary sources. Whether a source is primary or secondary depends on what you are analyzing.

The Bancroft Library is one of the treasures of the campus, and one of the world's great libraries for the history of the American West. Hours and floor plan showing location (2nd floor Doe Library)

Some Bancroft materials are available online via Calisphere, which includes primary sources from many California libraries and museums.

How to Use the Bancroft Library

Primary Sources Morse Code

Before you go:

1. Be prepared! Read secondary sources and know something about your topic.

2. You must register with the Aeon software to use the Bancroft Library. You may register online in advance.

2. Search OskiCat You can limit your OskiCat search to find materials at the Bancroft Library, instead of all campus libraries (choose 'Bancroft Library' from the pulldown menu that says 'Entire Collection.'). Remember that there are primary sources in many other campus libraries as well. Ask for assistance from a reference librarian.

Primary Sources Of Law

Once you have found an item you need, click on the BANCROFT REQUEST link to request the item through Aeon.


Important: if the item is in storage ('NRLF') and owned by The Bancroft Library, do not use the Request button in OskiCat. Instead, request these materials through Aeon AT LEAST 72 hours in advance (they prefer a week.)

If the OskiCat record mentions a 'finding aid' (an index) to a manuscript collection, you should use it to help you find what you need in the collection. If the finding aid is online there will be a link from the OskiCat record, or you can search the Online Archive of California to find it. The finding aids that are not online are near the Registration desk at the Bancroft Library.

3. Plan your visit; you will need to bring current government-issued ID, call numbers, titles, etc. with you. You may find it convenient to bring a quarter for the lockers, and a digital camera/cameraphone. Read the Conditions of Use to learn what you can and cannot bring into the Bancroft Library.

4. You will need to use the Aeon system to request photocopies or scans, request permission to publish materials, etc.

5. While onsite, make requests to see items before 4:30 pm.

6. Ask for assistance at The Bancroft Library's reference desk, or request assistance by email.