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What Are Primary Sources?

Researching how people lived can give you a deeper understanding of a time period. Where did they live and what kind of clothing did they wear? What foods did they enjoy and what did they do for entertainment? What kind of schools did they attend? How did they earn a living? The answers to these questions will tell us a great deal about a civilization.

Photograph by Lewis Hine, "Team Work", Children At Work 1908-1912

1909 photograph of children at work by Lewis Hine, seen on EyeWitnesstoHistory.com

One of the best ways to get to know a historical place and time is by reading accounts written by people who lived during that time. Some examples of primary sources are autobiographies and memoirs, letters and correspondence, original documents such as vital records, photographs and recordings, records of an organization, newspaper or magazine articles, journals and diaries, speeches, and artifacts.

The definition of primary source materials is not always a straightforward one. While some researchers believe when and why the document was created determines its eligibility as a primary source, others hold that how the document is used classifies whether or not it is a primary source.

Primary sources at the Pratt Library refer to a first hand account or evidence of an event or topic, use the words of the witness or the initial recorder of an event, reflect the viewpoint of the observer as well, and may be used to produce a secondary source. The Pratt Library collection contains primary sources related to important historic events and people.

Finding Primary Source Material

Browse the links below to explore primary sources on different historical periods and regions.

Ancient History
  • BBC Ancient History: Designed for students between the ages of 5 and 14, this resource covers Greeks, Romans, Vikings, and Anglo-Saxons, among others.
  • Eyewitness to History: This award-winning web site presents eyewitness accounts of significant historical events from ancient times up to the present and features photographs, sound recordings, and film clips.
  • Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Created by Prof. Paul Halsall at Fordham University, the Sourcebook incorporates primary sources from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, Israel, Persia, and the Hellenistic World. The site also includes a useful section on human origins.
  • Internet Modern History Sourcebook: Designed for students and teachers, the Internet Modern History Sourcebook is a vast site covering modern world history with a special emphasis on Europe. Primary sources, maps, interdisciplinary topics, images, and multimedia sources including music are included. The site is hosted by Fordham University.
  • Odyssey Online: Using art from the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University and the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, Odyssey Online provides an interactive voyage through the ancient Americas, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Near East, and sub-Saharan Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Africa
  • Ancient Egypt – the British Museum: The British Museum’s very informative look at the civilization of ancient Egypt concentrates on daily life, gods and goddesses, mummification, pyramids, time, trades, and writing.
  • Ancient History: Egyptians (BBC): This resource created by the BBC focuses on various aspects of daily life including religious beliefs, the role and status of women, pyramid building, and mummification.
Asia
  • Ancient China – the British Museum: The British Museum’s web resource explores crafts and artisans, tombs and ancestors, geography, and writing.
  • Ancient India – the British Museum: This web resource uses animations, 3-D models, and artifacts from the British Museum’s collections to give students a look at the culture, history, and religion of ancient India.
  • Mesopotamia – the British Museum: Using artifacts from its vast collections, the British Museum’s web resource focuses on the civilizations of Sumer, Assyria, and Babylon.
Europe
  • The Ancient Greek World (University of Pennsylvania): Looks at several aspects of daily life in the ancient Greek world including education, house furnishings, drinking parties, hunting, women’s life, and warfare.
  • Ancient History: Romans (BBC): Features articles on food, gladiators, religion, slavery, and social pecking order in ancient Rome.
  • Internet Medieval Sourcebook: Developed by the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies, the Internet Medieval Sourcebook is an extensive and colorful resource devoted to all aspects of medieval life and culture. Maps, full text documents, secondary sources, and numerous links are included.
  • Life in Elizabethan England: a Compendium of Common Knowledge, 1558-1603: Whether you’re an actor, researcher, or reenactor, you’ll find this site a great resource for information on such topics as children, education, fashion, food, games, language, money, occupations, and religion in Elizabethan times.
  • The Vikings (BBC): Here’s a great introduction to the Vikings, offering information on Viking beliefs, daily life, trade, travel, and exploration. This site also includes a helpful timeline.
The Americas
  • Africans in America: Conditions of Antebellum Slavery, 1830 - 1860: Produced under the aegis of the PBS Africans in America series, this article describes living conditions for slaves in the first half of the 19th century.
  • American Colonist's Library: Primary Source Documents Pertaining to Early American History: Comprehensive collection of texts ranging from classical philosophers and works of the Renaissance to letters of settlers, colonial documents, and the writings of prominent personalities such as Samuel Adams and Benjamin Franklin: a treasure house of primary sources.
  • American Memory: Historical Collections for the National Digital Library: The Library of Congress American Memory Project features more than 60 collections of primary resources including books, broadsides, maps, motion pictures, manuscripts, pamphlets, photographs, sheet music, and other materials. The range of subject matter is overwhelming: African American Perspectives, Baseball Cards, Civil War Photographs, Native American History, the Spanish American War in Motion Pictures, Voices from the Dust Bowl, and WPA manuscripts.
  • City Life in the Late 19th Century: This resource from the Library of Congress examines life in the rise Industrial America.
  • Documenting the American South: Primary Resources for the Study of Southern History, Literature, and Culture Sponsored by the University Libraries at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the texts are largely taken from its collections. The site gives access to carefully evaluated digitized books and manuscripts on Southern history, literature, and culture from the colonial era through the early 20th century. Five major subject groupings are currently available: First-Person Narratives, Library of Southern Literature, North American Slave Narratives, the Southern Homefront (1861-1865), and the Church in the Southern Black Community.
  • How the Civil War Soldiers Lived: Have you ever wondered what everyday life was like for the soldiers of the Union and the Confederacy? This resource uses first person accounts to explore various aspects of daily life including clothing, food, marching, and religion.
  • Life in the 13 American Colonies: This section of the Social Studies for Kids web site features useful information geared toward younger students on such topics as agriculture, education, food, and religion.
  • Lower East Side Tenement Museum: Urban Log Cabin and Excavation: Click on the rooms in the Urban Log Cabin and discover the lives of immigrant families living in New York’s Lower East Side in the years between 1870 and 1915. Peel away the layers of wallpaper and click on the floorboards to discover artifacts of daily life left behind by these families.
  • Native American Facts for Kids: Produced by the nonprofit organization, Native Languages of the Americas, this outstanding resource provides ready access to information on specific Native American groups ranging from the Abenakies through the Yuroks. Of particular note is the section demonstrating 10 different styles of Native American housing.
  • Native Americans - Daily Life in Olden Times: Another in teacher Don Donn’s series intended for younger students, this web site offers information on daily life among such Native American peoples as the Apache, Cherokee, Iroquois, Navajo, Pueblo, and Sioux.
  • Rural Life in the Late 19th Century: Using excerpts from primary sources, this section from the Library of Congress’s Learning Page resource features sheet music, home remedies, photographs, and personal accounts in an attempt to understand the realities of American rural life during this period.
  • Southern Homefront: The Southern Homefront, 1861-1865, documents Southern life during the Civil War, especially the unsuccessful attempt to create a viable nation state as evidenced in both private and public life. This resource contains more than four hundred digitized and encoded contemporary printed works and manuscripts, accompanied by many images of currency, manuscript letters, maps, broadsides, title pages, illustrations, and photographs. Southern Homefront is part of the University of North Carolina's respected Documenting the American South Collections.
  • Voices from the Days of Slavery: Former Slaves Tell Their Stories: Nearly seven hours of extraordinary recordings of interviews done between 1932 and 1975 with former slaves can be heard through the Library of Congress. Twenty-three people told their stories not just of slavery but of the lives of African Americans born between 1823 and the early 1860s.
  • Voices from the Dust Bowl: Part of the Library of Congress's American Memory Project, Voices "is an online presentation of a multi-format ethnographic field collection documenting the everyday life of residents of Farm Security Administration (FSA) migrant work camps in central California in 1940 and 1941. This collection consists of audio recordings, photographs, manuscript materials, publications, and ephemera." - Intro.

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