Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, for children or for adults, at some point, you will find yourself having to locate primary sources for your writing. So what exactly are primary sources, why do you need them, and, most importantly, how do you find them? The first part of this two-part post will focus on what they are and why you need them. Next Monday, I’ll offer some tips on how to locate them.
Primary sources, or original sources, as they are sometimes called, are firsthand, original, unedited, and uninterpreted works. They are created by the people directly involved in whatever the event was. So if you’re looking for a primary source from the Civil War, you’ll need information from someone who was actually there.
These primary sources can take the form of personal letters, journals, or diaries, manuscripts, speeches, autobiographies, newspaper or magazine articles, art work, photographs, poems, films, interviews, or firsthand observations–just to name a few.
Primary sources differ from secondary sources in that, while secondary sources may also take the form of newspaper or magazine articles, as well as encyclopedias, books, or websites, secondary sources are just that—they’re secondary. These sources comment on, analyze, interpret, or summarize primary sources.
For example, an artist’s painting would be a primary source, but an article critiquing that painting would be a secondary source. An autobiography of Henry Ford would be a primary source, but a website discussing that autobiography would be a secondary source.
Both types of sources can be helpful toward your research, but primary sources will provide you with the most accurate information possible. What could be more accurate than using a direct quote from the person you’re writing about to share their firsthand observation on something, or getting solid information from an expert on the topic you’re writing about, instead of an opinion of what someone else thinks about it?
There are both historical primary sources and contemporary primary sources. When you’re writing about history, be it nonfiction or fiction, you’ll want to look for two kinds of information: the factual history of the time and place of what you’re writing about, and the lifestyle of the people in that era. Or, of course, if you’re writing a biography, you’ll want all the details you can find about that specific person.
Some examples of the types of historical sources you may be looking for include: personal diaries or letters, art work or music from the era you’re writing about, legislation from that era, photographs, direct quotes (which can be found in speeches or interviews), autobiographies, or any type of original record.
In regards to contemporary primary sources, some may be the same as historical, such as newspapers, personal letters, speeches, or even government sites and records. In the case of sources like speeches and newspapers, contemporary sources will be easier to find because there are more options available, especially when it comes to searching online. But there are some sources that will strictly be used for contemporary research. These include living experts, firsthand observations, surveys, and many internet-based sources.
Primary sources, whether historical or contemporary, are an important part of your writing as they add the necessary factual details to make your fictional stories come alive, or to give you credibility as a nonfiction writer. If you write historical fiction, for instance, you’ll want to know what a typical family living in the 1700s might eat for dinner–and how they’d cook it. Or, if you’re writing about current cancer treatments, you’re going to want to interview experts in the medical field. In both cases, you’ll need to research primary, or original sources to get the information you need.
Be sure to check back next Monday as I’ll go through the process of finding original documents and current experts and share some great resources to help you in your search!