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Cite Primary Sources

Primary Sources Refresher

This guide will discuss the proper way to cite primary sources for research papers. First, let's review the definition and different types of primary sources.

A primary source is an information resource that is specific to its time period. They include eyewitness accounts, experiment results, statistical data, original pieces of creative writing, original artwork, and legal documents. Secondary sources, by contrast, comment on, interpret, or discuss primary sources.

Primary sources can appear in a wide variety of formats, such as:

  • Autobiographies                                                                           
  • Government documents
  • Images (artwork, design specs, photographs)
  • Letters, correspondence, diaries, scrapbooks
  • Music and lyrics
  • Newspapers (both the articles and the ads)
  • Speeches and oral histories
  • Translations of original text 
  • Any of the above if also contained in a book

These materials may be found in published or unpublished form. Published primary sources are easier to find and cite, since they have some things in common with the secondary sources you are used to using.

Introduction to Citing Primary Sources

The key to citing primary sources is to remember that every primary source is different. This is especially true of unpublished primary sources, or unique source types like speeches or artwork. Rather than closely following a formula laid out by MLA or the Chicago Manual of Style, you may need to either use a preferred citation provided by the repository that owns the original document, or construct your own citation that includes as much citation information as possible in a format that most closely matches your assigned style. This may require some critical thinking to figure out what citation information is available and how to structure it.

Note that some citation styles do have guidelines for citing manuscript collections or other primary sources. Before you begin, check to see if your assigned style includes a section like this. If it does, you may still find this guide helpful for determining how to apply the rules to your specific case. It's especially important to consult the Preferred Citations section of this guide if you accessed your primary sources through a specific repository, even if you think you can confidently construct a citation using your assigned style.

Including the Important Information

Citations for primary sources, particularly unpublished sources, can vary depending on the repositories that own them and even from source to source. However, most citations for these unique sources include some of the same components. 

When you cite primary sources, you should be trying to provide, to the extent that it's possible:

  • A description of the specific item (letter, memorandum, etc.)
  • Date of the item (if known)
  • Collection name (usually includes the name of the creator or accumulator)
  • Box number and/or folder title
  • Name and physical location of the archive or repository where the collection is physically located

Think of your citation as a street address. Because unique, unpublished materials often only exist in one place, your professor or a future researcher needs to be able to pinpoint the exact location where it lives. Imagine the frustration of learning about an interesting source, only to find that it's impossible to trace the citation you found back to the original!

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