Skip to Main Content

I have to write a research paper using primary sources. Where do I start?

Primary sources are created by individuals who participated in or witnessed an event and recorded that event during or immediately after the event.


A student activist during the war writing about protest activities has created a memoir. This would be a primary source because the information is based on her own involvement in the events she describes. Similarly, an antiwar speech is a primary source. So is the arrest record of student protesters. A newspaper editorial or article, reporting on a student demonstration is also a primary source.


Deeds, wills, court documents, military records, tax records, census records, diaries, journals, letters, account books, advertisements, newspapers, photographs, and maps are primary sources.

Secondary sources are created by someone who was either not present when the event occurred or removed from it in time. We use secondary sources for overview information, and to help familiarize ourselves with a topic and compare that topic with other events in history.


History books, encyclopedias, historical dictionaries, and academic articles are secondary sources.


If you've never written a research paper using primary sources, it is important to understand that the process is different from using only secondary sources. Many students discover that finding and gaining access to primary source documents can be difficult. The Library website has a valuable guide to locating primary source documents. Follow the link below to be redirected to that guide:

  • Students are encouraged to seek help from the Special Collections Librarian or Research Librarians to aid in their research projects. Librarians will be able to aid students in a variety of ways including helping to locate primary source materials.

After locating appropriate primary sources, it is necessary for students to analyze and interpret them. To many students, this task can seem arduous, if not overwhelming. There are many resources available in the library as well as online, which are helpful. The National Archives website has very useful analysis worksheets that can help students to determine the significance of primary source documents. Links to PDF files of these worksheets are listed below:

Written Document |Artifact |Cartoon |Map | Motion Picture | Photograph | Poster| Sound Recording