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Primary Sources: Primary Sources by Subject

NCC Libraries guide to finding Primary Source materials.

Primary Sources in the Humanities and Social Sciences

Primary sources can vary by subject and discipline.

What is considered a primary source for the humanities might be different than what is considered a primary source in the social sciences. Please see below for details!

Primary Sources in the Humanities

Primary source materials in the humanities typically include one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Based on first-hand, personal experience
  • Author/creator experienced or witnessed the event, performance, or object/work of art.
  • Usually written/created at the time of the event or very shortly after. (Memoirs are an exception, and might be written much later.)
  • Primary Sources are not just writing!  Photographs, works of art, and objects (furniture, jewelry, clothing etc.) can all be primary source materials.
Discipline/Subject Primary Source Example
English  novel, play or poem
Art photographs, paintings, murals, tattoos, sculptures, drawings, sketches
Music recordings, live performance recordings, sheet music, original song writing

Performing Arts

video/recording of live works: dance, theatre, musical theatre, choreography, rehearsal

Primary Sources in the Social Sciences

Primary source materials in the social sciences include the following:

  • Material produced at the time of the historical event
  • The author/creator often experienced or witnessed the event.
  • Material produced by the person being studied.
  • Primary sources in the social sciences can also include photographs, art works, personal communication.  Not just written documents!
Social Science    Primary Source Materials (examples)
Anthropology government documents, oral histories, ethnographies, research data
Archeology photographs, film documentary, artifacts & objects, sound recordings
Economics government documents/data including Bureau of Labor statistics, Federal Reserve data, Consumer Surveys, Census Bureau, Statistical Abstracts
Geography maps, satellite images, population data, archival photographs 
History participant accounts, eyewitness accounts, autobiographies, memoirs, newspaper articles, TV news, interview, diaries, journals, blog posts, YouTube/streaming video, electronic personal communication (email), speeches, interviews, letters, audio/radio, government documents
Law state and federal legislation, state and federal case law, US and state constitutions, court opinions, state and federal regulations, treaties
Linguistics speech recordings, dialect recordings
Political Science government documents (Congressional Record, hearings, committee records/reports), statistics, polls, interviews, speeches, government archives, interviews, speeches, personal papers, personal communication
Psychology empirical research , tests, measurements, scales
Sociology research studies, data archives, professional papers, manuscripts, personal and professional correspondence

Primary Sources in the Sciences

Primary sources in biological, health, and natural science fields typically consist of reports/information on original research that is provided by the participating researchers/scientists.  

Examples include:

  • Experiments/experimental data
  • Scientific conference papers/proceedings
  • Technical papers
  • Lab reports