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Introduction to Primary Source Documents

Introduction to Primary Source Documents

The Atomic Heritage Foundation has many primary sources in its archives. One of its major missions is to make as many of these documents as possible available to the public. Before beginning your research into primary documents, AHF suggests reading the brief introduction to the role and use of primary documents in research.


Primary Document Examples

Courtesy of UC-Berkeley Library.

  • Primary sources enable a researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period. A primary source reflects the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer. Examples include:
  • Diaries, journals, speeches, interviews, letters, memos, manuscripts and other papers in which individuals describe events in which they were participants or observers.
  • Memoirs and autobiographies. These may be less reliable than diaries or letters since they are usually written long after events occurred and may be distorted by bias, dimming memory or the revised perspective that may come with hindsight. On the other hand, they are sometimes the only source for certain information.
  • Records of or information collected by government agencies. Many kinds of records (births, deaths, marriages; permits and licences issued; census data; etc.) document conditions in the society.
  • Records of organizations. The minutes, reports, correspondence, etc. of an organization or agency serve as an ongoing record of the activity and thinking of that organization or agency.
  • Published materials (books, magazine and journal articles, newspaper articles) written at the time about a particular event. While these are sometimes accounts by participants, in most cases they are written by journalists or other observers. The important thing is to distinguish between material written at the time of an event as a kind of report, and material written much later, as historical analysis.
  • Photographs, audio recordings and moving pictures or video recordings, documenting what happened.
  • Materials that document the attitudes and popular thought of a historical time period. If you are attempting to find evidence documenting the mentality or psychology of a time, or of a group (evidence of a world view, a set of attitudes, or the popular understanding of an event or condition), the most obvious source is public opinion polls taken at the time. Since these are generally very limited in availability and in what they reveal, however, it is also possible to make use of ideas and images conveyed in the mass media, and even in literature, film, popular fiction, textbooks, etc. Again, the point is to use these sources, written or produced at the time, as evidence of how people were thinking.
  • Research data such as anthropological field notes, the results of scientific experiments, and other scholarly activity of the time.
  • Artifacts of all kinds: physical objects, buildings, furniture, tools, appliances and household items, clothing, toys.


Approach to Research: The Document-Based Question (DBQ)

  • The required Document-Based Question (DBQ) differs from the standard essays in its emphasis on your ability to analyze and synthesize historical data and assess verbal, quantitative, or pictorial materials as historical evidence. Like the standard essays, however, the DBQ is judged on its thesis and argument.
  • Although confined to no single format, the documents are unlikely to be the familiar classics (such as the Emancipation Proclamation or the Declaration of Independence), but their authors may be major historical figures. The documents vary in length and are chosen to illustrate the interactions and complexities of the historical process. They may include charts, graphs, cartoons, and pictures, as well as written materials. The DBQ typically requires students to relate the documents to a historical period or theme and, thus, to focus on major periods and issues. For this reason, outside knowledge — information gained from materials other than the documents — is very important and must be incorporated into your essay if the highest scores are to be earned.