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Definition: Primary Source

Primary sources are usually defined as first hand information or data that is generated by witnesses or participants in past events. Primary sources are characterized not by their format but rather by the information they convey and their relationship to the research question. The interpretation and evaluation of these sources becomes the basis for other research. Evaluating whether something can be used as a primary source depends on two things:

Proximity to the source. Ideally the best type of source material comes from a person or process that is closest in time or proximity to the event, person or place under study. Usually the creator of this type of primary source is an eyewitness who left a record for personal or procedural purposes. Reliability of sources declines as one get farther in time and proximity.

Questions asked. Determining whether a source is a primary source often depends on the questions asked of it by the researcher.

For example...

A history text from the 1950s about the rise of Catholicism in America is usually considered a secondary source. However, a researcher investigating prevailing attitudes about religion in the 1950s may consider this work a primary source.