Section 3: Types of Primary Sources
Published Documents | Unpublished
Documents | Oral Traditions/Histories
| Visual Documents/Artifacts
When analyzing primary sources, historians consider
the type of primary source under study. Different primary sources were
created for different reasons. Knowing the different types of primary
sources will help you evaluate the reliability of primary sources. Read
about the different types of primary sources below.
[The past is behind us.] Gerrit
Albertus Beneker (b. 1882). Poster, 1918.
Presidential Election of 1920: Introduction
|Some primary sources are published documents. They were created for large audiences and were distributed widely. Published documents include books, magazines, newspapers, government documents, non-government reports, literature of all kinds, advertisements, maps, pamphlets, posters, laws, and court decisions.
When reviewing published documents, remember that just because
something was published does not make it truthful, accurate, or
reliable. Every document has a creator, and every creator has a
point of view, blind spots, and biases. Also remember that even
biased and opinionated sources can tell us important things about
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from Mathew Brady to President Abraham Lincoln, asking Lincoln to
sit for a photograph], 1865 March 2
| Many types of unpublished documents have been saved, and can be
used as primary sources. These include personal letters, diaries,
journals, wills, deeds, family Bibles containing family histories,
school report cards, and many other sources. Unpublished business
records such as correspondence, financial ledgers, information about
customers, board meeting minutes, and research and development files
also give clues about the past.
Unpublished documents often come from community organizations,
churches, service clubs, political parties, and labor unions in
the form of membership lists, meeting minutes, speeches, financial
and other records. Government at all levels creates a variety of
unpublished records. These include police and court records, census
records, tax and voter lists, departmental reports, and classified
Unlike published documents, unpublished records may be difficult to
find because few copies exist. For example, personal letters may be found
only in the possession of the person to whom the letters were sent. Letters
of famous or remarkable people may be collected and eventually published.
Keep in mind that letter writers did not intend (and perhaps could not
imagine) that their letters would be read by more than one person. Because
unpublished documents were seldom meant to be read by the public, they
provide interesting clues about the past.
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Oral Traditions/Oral Histories
Island, St Bernard Parish, Louisiana. January 1941. A
Spanish muskrat trapper in the doorway of his marsh home.
| Oral traditions and oral histories provide another way to learn
about the past from people with firsthand knowledge of historical
events. Recently, spoken words that make up oral histories have gained
importance as primary sources. Historians and others find out about
the lives of ordinary people through spoken stories and tales. Oral
histories provide important historical evidence about people, especially
minority groups, who were excluded from mainstream publications or
did not leave behind written primary sources.
Oral histories are as old as human beings. Before the invention of writing,
information passed from generation to generation through the spoken
word. Many people around the world continue to use oral traditions
to pass along knowledge and wisdom. Interviews and recordings of
community elders and witnesses to historical events provide exciting
stories, anecdotes, and other information about the past.
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Visual Documents and Artifacts
New York City
Visual documents include photographs, films, paintings, and other
types of artwork. Because visual documents capture moments in time,
they can provide evidence of changes over time. Visual documents include
evidence about a culture at specific moments in history: its customs,
preferences, styles, special occasions, work, and play.
Like other primary source documents, a visual document has a creator with
a point of view -- such as a painter, sculptor, or film maker. Even
photographs were created by photographers using film and cameras
to create desired effects.
Think about the creator's point of view when you review visual documents.
What was the creator's purpose? Why this pose? Why that perspective? Why
that framing? Why this distance? Why this subject? What was included? What
was excluded? Using visual documents as primary sources requires careful
analysis of the content and the point of view of the creator.
When you have finished reviewing the types of
primary sources, go ahead to Primary Source Set:
Slavery in the United States, 1790-1865.