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Primary Sources Tip Sheet

What are primary sources?

Primary sources can be defined as the “texts nearest to any subject of investigation” [Marius, Richard A.  A Short Guide to Writing about History, 7th ed., 2010, p. 14].

These include:

  • Letters, diaries, memoirs, speeches, and other first-person accounts
  • Certain government publications, such as Congressional hearings
  • Official accounts by people in authority, such as Secretary of the Navy reports
  • Oral histories or interviews
  • Most newspaper and periodical articles from the time period of the event
  • Other material from the time such as pamphlets, broadsheets, or photographs

By contrast, secondary sources are an author’s interpretation of an event based on primary sources and include:

  • Most scholarly books
  • Textbooks
  • Most magazine and scholarly journal articles

Why use primary sources?

The use of at least one primary source, and normally more, is a requirement for almost all History research papers.  Primary sources are often the best sources of information because they are original and you interpret them and draw your own conclusions.  Working with primary sources is always good use of your time in researching your history topic.

Locating primary sources in Nimitz Library

Nimitz Library owns many kinds and collections of primary sources either as originals or reprinted copies.  Documents, manuscripts, photographs, or personal papers in their original form are kept in the Special Collections and Archives Division

Nimitz Library Digital Collections also contain primary source material, paritcularly on John Paul Jones, U.S. Naval Academy history, the Civil War, and the Somers Affair.

There is no separate listing of all the primary sources in Nimitz Library, but all of the sets in the general collection have a record in the Library’s catalog.  A primary source can be reproduced at any time in book form or on microform or on the web as long as the original is unaltered.

Some ideas to identify primary sources are:

  • Start with a background article or summary or a secondary source to identify the key people, organizations, ships, places, dates, or other specific facts about your topic
  • Search the people involved in your event as an author (last name, first name) to see what they may have written or spoken about it or about their life
  • Use the keyword phrase “personal narratives” and any war or battle to find accounts of people who participated
  • Other words in the catalog that are a clue to primary sources are "eyewitness," "documentary history," "with documents" or "sources"
  • Check the bibliographies in the books you use or other bibliographies since they often list primary sources
  • Look in the collections of documents for ones on your specific topic by using the index 
  • Use newspaper and periodical indexes to identify articles from the time of your event since most of your topics would have made the news at that time
  • Consider looking for government publications, if relevant, such as Congressional hearings to fund a program, a Congressional investigation into an incident, or the Annual Reports to Congress from the Secretary of the Navy or Defense
  • Check other pages on this History Research Guide for primary source document collections or links to reliable internet sites
  • Ask a librarian for further assistance

Examples of collections of primary source documents

  • Multiple Time Periods
  • 18th Century
    • Naval Documents of the American Revolution (11 vols., E271.U583)
    • Papers of John Paul Jones, 1762-1788 (10 reels of microfilm, E207.J7P36)
    • Proceedings and Debates of the British Parliaments Respecting North America, 1542-1783 (11 vols., E187.G97)
  • 19th Century
    • Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers (6 vols., E335.A35 and online)
    • New American State Papers, Series on Naval Affairs, Exploration, Military Affairs, Indian Affairs, and Science and Technology (71 volumes, some documents from 18th century, check catalog for call numbers)
    • Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (30 vols., E591.U58 and online)
  • 20th Century
    • Conduct of the Persian Gulf War (3 vols., DS79.72.C662)
    • Hearings Before the Committee on Naval Affairs/Armed Services Committee of the House of Representatives (1908-1960 but not complete, VA53.A2)
    • Hearings Before the General Board of the Navy, 1917-1950 (15 reels of microfilm, VA52.A834H43)
    • Records of the U.S. Marine Corps in the Vietnam War, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (78 reels of microfilm, DS577.4.R44)
    • U.S. Navy Action and Operational Reports from World War II: Pacific Theater, Parts 1, 2, and 3 (44 reels of microfilm, D767.U52)

Citing primary sources

Primary sources need to be cited like all resources you use for your research.   Check the style manual recommended by your professor or the link to citing your sources on Nimitz Library’s web page.

Getting help with primary sources

Ask the Reference Librarian on duty at the Reference Desk for help in identifying or finding primary sources.  You can also directly contact the History Librarian.

Primary Source Tip Sheets from other colleges

Georgetown University

University of California, Berkeley

University of North Carolina, Wilmington

Yale University

Return to History Primary Sources Page

The links on this page are to sites that are not located at the United States Naval Academy. The USNA is not responsible for the content found on these sites. In addition, the content of these sites does not necessarily reflect the opinions, standards, policy or endorsement of the Naval Academy or the United States Government.

Comments or suggestions?
Last updated: 15 August 2011