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What is a Primary Source? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 1:34 Function
  • 2:19 Advantages & Disadvantages
  • 3:12 Examples
  • 4:23 Defining Questions
  • 4:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Patricia Vineski
Let's explore primary sources. In this lesson, learn about first hand materials as primary sources. And then, begin to analyze and determine if a document, information, or object is a primary source.

Definition of a Primary Source

In today's world the average person is bombarded, to say the least, with electronic messages, visual images, surveys, news stories, posts, and more from around the globe. But, if we ask ourselves how much of that is from primary sources, we might be a bit surprised. That is because primary sources are written, recorded, or created by people who were actually there at the time. Primary sources are first-hand accounts. This means they are often more accurate in depicting the nature of events as they unfold in real time than secondary sources. Now beyond all of that outside information that we are blasted with, we are primary sources for the events that happen to us and that we experience each day. For example, if stopped at a stop sign, you witness a fender bender occur across the street, you are a primary source of information for that accident.

Primary sources are original objects or documents, the raw materials. For example a personal diary is a primary source of information about the person who wrote it. A famous example of this is the diary of Anne Frank. Anne Frank, a young girl during World War II, kept a diary of her life in hiding during the Holocaust. This diary is a primary source of information about her life at that time as a young Jewish girl. It is a primary source because it contains information that is a result of direct observation of an event and it was created during the time period of the event. Primary sources are first-hand information recorded at the time, or shortly after the original event.

The Function of a Primary Source

The function of a primary source is to serve as a record of original events. Primary sources are neither better nor worse than their later interpretation by others; they are simply different. The source of the information you use is not as important as its quality and its relevance for your particular purpose. The best primary sources are those that are created within a year of the time period being researched.

Government documents, photographs, magazines, and newspapers can all be primary sources. They often function as a record of a historical event. Going back to the example of Anne Frank's diary, as a diary, it was written at the time Anne was experiencing those events in her life. It was not something that was recounted from memory years later.

Advantages and Disadvantages

There are advantages to using primary sources. The major advantages are that they are often more accurate in depicting the nature of events as they unfold. Think about a television interview you may have seen about your favorite songwriter. The artist being interviewed is going to provide an accurate account of the meaning behind his/her new hit song. However, the music critic who writes an article about this same song may interpret its meaning differently, and therefore, provides an opinion rather than accurate information from the artist.

The disadvantages of using a primary source can be that they are often less available and can, in some cases, be costly to use or acquire. Think about artifacts from the ancient Egyptians. These are great primary sources for providing information from that time period. However, your average student writing a paper on ancient Egypt will likely not be able to get his or her hands on an actual artifact.

Examples of Primary Sources

Several examples of primary sources have already been mentioned in this lesson. These additional sources can be classified as primary sources:

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