About Primary Sources

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Primary resources are the backbone of every National History Day project.  This section explains what they are and how to find them online.  The Chester County Historical Society (CCHS) has hundreds of thousands of primary sources in our library and museum collection which are available to National History Day students as they research their projects.  Contact Alaina McNaughton (nhdcoord@chestercohistorical.org) for support in using the CCHS collection to research your NHD project.

What is a primary resource?

Primary sources are first hand evidence--documents or objects which were created during the time being studied. Examples are letters, speeches, diaries, newspaper articles from the time, oral history interviews from an eyewitness, documents, photographs, artifacts, sound recordings or anything else that provides contemporary accounts about a person or event. Check out Docs Teach, interactive lesson plans from the National Archives using primary sources.

Some materials might be considered primary sources for one topic but not for another. For example, a newspaper article about D-Day (which was June 6, 1944) written in June 1944 would be a primary source.  However, an article about D-Day written in June 2001 probably was not written by an eyewitness or participant and would not be a primary source. Similarly, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, delivered soon after the 1863 battle, is a primary source for the Civil War, but a speech given on the 100th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg in 1963 is not a primary source for the Civil War. If there's any doubt about whether a source should be listed as primary or secondary, you should explain in the annotation why you chose to categorize it as you did.

Above: A diary documenting first-hand accounts of an event is considered a primary source. 

Here are some common questions about primary sources:

Are interviews with experts primary sources?

No, an interview with an expert (a professor of Civil War history, for example) is not a primary source, UNLESS that expert actually lived through and has first-hand knowledge of the events being described.

If I find a quote from a historical figure in my textbook or another secondary source and I use the quote in my project, should I list it as a primary source?

No, quotes from historical figures which are found in secondary sources are not considered primary sources. The author of the book has processed the quotation, selecting it from the original source. Without seeing the original source for yourself, you don't know if the quotation is taken out of context, what else was in the source, what the context was, etc.

Should I list each photograph or document individually in my bibliography?

You should handle this differently in notes than in your bibliography. When you are citing sources for specific pieces of information or interpretations, such as in footnotes or endnotes, you should cite the individual document or photograph. In the bibliography, however, you would cite only the collection as a whole, not all the individual items. You should include the full title of the collection (e.g., Digges-Sewall Papers or the Hutzler Collection), the institution and city or city/state where the collection is located (e.g., Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore). You can use the annotation to explain that this collection provided 7 photographs which you used in your exhibit or that collection provided14 letters which were important in helping you trace what happened. The same treatment applies to newspaper articles. In the footnotes or endnotes, you should cite the individual articles and issues of a newspaper. In the bibliography, you would list only the newspaper itself, not the individual issues or articles; you can use the annotation to explain that you used X number of days of the newspaper for your research.

I cannot travel to archives and libraries, where can I find sources for my research online?

In December 2000 Congress authorized a program to preserve America's history in digital form. The Library of Congress is leading this national effort to collect, archive and preserve digital records for current and future generations.  As a result, many archives are now able to make their one-of-a-kind manuscripts available as high resolution copies to anyone with a computer, while saving these precious artifacts from being degraded by handling.  This means that National History Day students now have access to an unprecedented number of primary sources!  Here are some excellent places to find primary sources online:

For research projects about Chester County, PA topics, the Chester County Historical Society has over 500,000 original documents, 70,000 objects and 80,000 original photographs dating from the 1840s.  While many are digitized, none are currently available online.  However, our expert historians, librarians, collection managers and photo archivists are happy to help you.  For more information about contacting them or visiting CCHS, return to the main website and search under "Collections".

Local Archives and Libraries:

Some of these archives and libraries have digitized collections, others are close by if you wanted to view their collections firsthand. 

Chester County Historical Society

Chester County Archives and Records Services

Delaware County Archives

Drexel University, College of Medicine Legacy Center Archives and Special Collections

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

John J. Wilcox, Jr. Archives

Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL)

South Asian American Digital Archive

The Library Company of Philadelphia

The Philadelphia City Archive and PhillyHistory.org

Additional Research Tools: 

Chronicling America

Helpful Research Links Provided by National History Day: Click on the "Helpful Research Links"

Historic American Building Survey/Historic American Engineering Record (HABS/HAER) 

Library of Congress

Library of Congress American Memory On-line System 

National Archives

National History Education Clearinghouse

Pennsylvania State Archives (Digital Records)

How can I learn how to use primary sources from the Library of Congress?

The foundation of every successful National History Day project is the quality of student research and the ability to find primary sources to support their thesis.  Would you like to learn new research techniques or primary sources to share with your students?  If you are a student, these short lessons can help you find sources to use in your own NHD project.   Six hour-long lessons are free and convenient.  Earn a certificate of completion for each lesson completed.  Click here to go to self-paced online lessons at the Library of Congress that will help you learn to find what you are looking for!