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Primary Sources for Historical Research

W/hat are primary sources?

Primary sources are original documents dating from the period being studied. Some primary sources tell a personal story, for example, eyewitness accounts written at the time of an event
or written shortly afterwards. Others are official documents such as legislation and regulations. 

The list of primary sources is almost endless and includes: 

  • Diaries and memoirs
  • Letters
  • Interviews and speeches
  • Official documents 
  • Original research 
  • Statistics
  • Newspapers, magazines and newsletters
  • Reports and grey literature
  • Literature such as poems, drama, novels 
  • Still and moving images in any format
  • Maps
  • Arts and crafts
  • Music
  • Ephemera  such as posters, programmes, receipts  
  • Books, pamphlets and manuscripts


Primary sources are like jigsaw pieces: You need to join them together to see the picture. However, using primary sources isn't always straightforward:

  • Sometimes you have a guide to help you join them up
  • Sometimes you have to do some research into the context.
  • Sometimes you just have to line them up and see if they fit.
  • Sometimes lots of pieces are missing 
  • Sometimes they just don’t fit together!

See Finding primary sources  for more information on how to find and use physical and online primary the University of Birmingham and beyond.

See Digitised collections for a list of online primary sources. 

See the companion guide Special collections and archives. (Opens a different guide.)

Comparing primary, secondary and tertiary sources.

You may have come across the terms primary, secondary and even tertiary sources. Depending on what they are and how they are being used, sources can sometimes be in more than one category.

Primary Sources 

Primary Sources are original documents dating from the period being studied.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources include books and articles that analyse and interpret a subject often by using primary sources e.g. textbooks, histories, literary criticism and interpretation, analyses and commentaries.

Tertiary Sources

Tertiary Sources provide a definition, introduction or overview of a subject. They include dictionaries, encyclopedias almanacs, fact books and bibliographies


Some material can be both primary and secondary or primary and tertiary sources!

For example a text book about painting written during the nineteenth century could be:

  • a secondary source because it was intended as a text book for people living at the time
  • a primary source for someone studying art history because it was written by someone who lived in the nineteenth century and therefore whose writings reflected or challenged the tastes and values of the time.

Image attributions

This page: Brown paper and black pen by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

 Publications of historical and record societies: Winter is coming Stéphane Juban on Unsplash

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