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ECO 310: History of Economic Thought : Types of Sources

Use this guide to access your library resources and guide you through research skills with primary source documents.

Primary Sources

Primary sources are first-hand accounts of events or ideas from a specific time or event. These accounts usually reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer. Historians often use primary sources to better understand events of the past through perusing records people from that period left behind. The concept of a primary source also relies on your specific research question. Primary are not limited by time. For example, a diary written in 1827 can be a primary source just the same as a Tweet from 2016 can be. 

Examples of primary sources include: 

  • Magazine and newspaper articles from the period
  • Diaries
  • Memoirs and autobiographies
  • Interviews
  • Letters 
  • Speeches
  • Documents produced by organizations

Photo below courtesy of Western University's Research Guide on Primary Source Literacy 

Tips for Writing with Primary Sources

Use the following questions to help you analyze the primary source document you are working with: 

1. Look at the physical nature of your source. What can you learn from the form of the source? What does this tell you? 

2. Think about the purpose of the source. What was the author's message or argument? What were they trying to get across?

3. How does the author try to get the message across? What methods does he/she use? 

4. What do you know about the author? Race, sex, class, occupation, religion, age, region, political beliefs? Does any of this matter? How? 

5. Who constituted the intended audience? Was this source meant for one person's eyes, or for the public? How does that affect the source? 

6. What can a careful reading of the text tell you?

Adapted from Carleton College Department of History guide on How to Analyze a Primary Source

Generating Research Questions 

In order to ask research questions on your topic, you should: 

  • Have some background knowledge on the topic. Primary sources can be a good jumping off point when beginning research using secondary sources. 
  • Ask guiding questions about primary sources. What do you know by reading/viewing/listening to the primary source? What is immediately apparent? 
  • Ask essential questions about the primary sources: What impact could the primary source have had on the individual/community/society at large? What could have caused the creation of the primary source? How does this primary source compare to other primary sources.