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Lehigh University Libraries - Library Guides

Archives at Lehigh University: Primary and Secondary Sources

Library guide for identifying, understanding and using archival collections, including personal papers, organizational and institutional records; primary and secondary sources.

Primary Sources

Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories. Primary sources may include letters, manuscripts, diaries, journals, newspapers, speeches, interviews, memoirs, documents produced by government agencies such as Congress or the Office of the President, photographs, audio recordings, moving pictures or video recordings, research data, and objects or artifacts such as works of art or ancient roads, buildings, tools, and weapons. These sources serve as the raw material to interpret the past, and when they are used along with previous interpretations by historians, they provide the resources necessary for historical research.

(Source: American Library Association)

A primary source is a record of a person, event, or occurrence that was created by an eye-witness or participant's version of an event.  Primary sources allow researchers to gain better insight into historical figures and events.

  • Examples of Primary Sources:

Diaries -- Letters -- Photographs -- Maps -- Artwork --  Scrapbooks -- Notebooks (including student notebooks) -- Field books -- Maps -- Emails -- Office records -- Postcards -- Artifacts -- Oral Histories

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are created by individuals who were not direct participants in an event. For example, books on Purdue University history are secondary sources because the author analyzes, interprets, retells, or explains events for which he did not personally witness or participate.  Secondary sources help you understand a topic and give you different views of historical people, events, and occurrences.

While primary sources are the original records created by firsthand witnesses of an event, secondary sources are documents, texts, images, and objects about an event created by someone who typically referenced the primary sources for their information. Textbooks are excellent examples of secondary sources.

Examples of Secondary Sources:

Biographies -- Term Papers -- Theses and Dissertations -- History books -- Magazine articles -- Journal articles -- Web sites -- Documentaries -- Encyclopedias 

Primary and Secondary Sources at Lehigh

Special Collections holds wide range of Primary Sources  that are regularly consulted in teaching, class presentation, and research projects. Many of the popular collections referenced regularly have been digitized and added to the Special Collections digital collections.

I Remain: A Digital Archive of Letters, Manuscripts and Ephemera: This digitally accessible collection represents a range of lives — from ordinary citizens to Presidents, literary luminaries, movie stars, soldiers, and politicians.

Civil War letters of Joseph Richardson: These are letters of first sergeant Joseph D. Richardson to his family in Beverly, NJ during the Civil War. Richardson enlisted in 1861, was promoted to first sergeant on May 4, 1864, and died at Cedar Creek, Virginia on November 7, 1864 of wounds received while foraging. Some of his letters are written on matching letterheads with patriotic iconography.

Internet Archives is a home of millions of primary source documents contributed by institutions and repositories around the world. Lehigh University is also a regular contributor to the Internet Archives.

Primary Sources in Other Languages:
19th-Century Political Pamphlets in Spanish: More than 300 extremely rare flyers, pamphlets, broadsides and other ephemera from the early 1800s published mostly in Mexico and some Spain, political and religious content.

Foreign Language Primary Sources in I Remain Collection

Selected Library Guides About Primary Sources

Teaching with Primary Sources

Teaching with Primary Sources (video by Library of Congress)
This instructional video explains how to identify primary and secondary sources.