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Archives: Primary Sources: What are Primary Sources?

Welcome: This guide serves as an introduction to primary sources.

About this guide

Primary sources serve as evidence in research. Unlike secondary and tertiary sources, primary sources are original sources. This guide identifies that primary sources are characterized by their content rather than their form.

ArchivesSpace/Finding Aids

Click here to explore the Lipscomb University Library ArchivesSpace. ArchivesSpace is an online platform to access finding aids. According to the Society of Amercian Archivists, a finding aid is "a tool that facilitates discovery of information within a collection of records."


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What is a Primary Source?

A Primary Source is an original work/piece usually revolving around a specific event in history.  An eyewitness account or a video recording of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech are both examples of primary sources. Letters, newspaper clippings, biographies, and autobiographies pertaining to the event may be considered primary sources as well. 

How are Primary Sources utilized? 

Researchers and students examine original works (primary sources) to gain insight. If a student were assigned a paper on parental affection in early childhood development, then it would be wise to examine the Harlow Studies, which focuses on this particular topic. The Harlow Studies serve as a primary source for the paper. Primary sources strengthen the thesis. Using primary sources, students contribute to the discourse, the literature, and the knowledge of the topic. This is how research builds upon research. Students may use sources such as a video or audio recording of the actual experiment, a journal entry from it, or even the study itself. These are all examples of primary sources. 

What's the difference between a Primary and a Secondary Source?

See Primary vs. Secondary Sources for more details.

Where do I find Primary Sources? 

Archives and Special Collections specialize in preserving primary sources. Many libraries are working towards disseminating primary sources via the internet. However, not all primary sources are available electronically. When the online search system does not have a source, search the finding aids and check with the archivist or librarian. Email your archivist for assistance. 

Are all Primary Sources the same for each subject?

Generally, yes, but it can vary from subject to subject. For example, a primary source in history would be an account of a historical event, an article on the event, or an autobiography. In psychology, however, a primary source can range from a study on a specific psych disorder to an excerpt out of DSM-5. The more you search, then the clearer the boundaries will be between subjects. Always consult your professor to clarify the citation style required for the assignment.   

Research is a process. before you begin, here are a few things to keep in mind and to ask yourself. 

  • What information do I need to know?
  • What information does my professor want me to know?
  • Where do I find that information?
  • Start brainstorming as soon as possible. It's really important to get ahead of the curve, especially if the assignment leaves you confused about what you should explore. The extra time will give you the opportunity to get exactly what is required for the project at hand.
  • Be concise because all library search engines are case and word sensitive.‚Äč What that means is that if a student were looking for how violence in video games correlates with real-life violence, then the student should avoid typing extensive entries into the search bar. If the student types into the search bar "How does video game violence correlate with real-life anger and aggression" the search engine will process each word and will likely bring up completely unrelated sources. Instead, it's best to leave only "video games" "violence" and "aggression" in the search bar, which will not only narrow the results but will retrieve more relevant material. Use the "Advanced Search" feature when conducting research.
  • Look in multiple places for sources. One of the most daunting aspects of research is the struggle to find quality/relevant sources. However, that shouldn't discourage further research on the topic. It's better for students to look in multiple areas before deciding to pursue another subject.
  • Ask your professor or any of the Librarians at Beaman for assistance, especially when finding resources on a particular subject or topic proves to be difficult.

Contact Us

For more information about the archives and special collections at Lipscomb's Beaman Library, please contact:

Sara Harwell

Archives Specialist


Open Hours: Mon-Thurs 8am-4pm

Closed: Friday, Saturday, Sunday