Using Primary Sources in Your Writing

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Primary sources are the building blocks of historical research and should provide the foundation of your argument and interpretation, whereas secondary sources should inform and supplement the primary sources. Use your primary sources as evidence for answering your research question and write based on those sources, rather than “plugging them in” after the fact to bolster your argument. In short, primary sources should drive the paper, not the other way around.

Once you have identified primary sources, it is necessary to read and examine them with a critical eye. It is important to consider both the source itself and the time in which it was created. Remember, too, that sources exist in different formats. Below are some of the questions you may ask about the nature of a source:

  • What is the source and what is it telling you?
  • Who is the author or creator?
  • What biases or assumptions may have influenced the author or creator?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • What was the significance of the source at the time it was created?
  • Has the source been edited or translated, thus potentially altering the original intent or purpose?
  • What questions could be answered using this source?
  • What, if any, are the limitations of the source?
  • Does your understanding of the source fit with other scholars’ interpretations, or does it challenge their argument?

Consideration of these questions will help you analyze and interpret your sources without overusing and relying on too many direct quotations.

Sources: 

 

Citing Sources

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The purpose of any citation method is the same, namely,

  • to give credit and appropriately attribute the work of others
  • to assure readers about the accuracy of your facts
  • to show readers the research that informs your work
  • to help readers follow or extend your work (Turabian pp. 135-136).1

It is important to provide complete information about your primary source whether found in a printed source or online. The basic elements to include in a citation for a published print source are: author of the document, title of the document, title of the book if different from the document, name of editor or author of the book, place of publication, publisher, year, and page numbers. The basic elements to include in a citation for an online source are: author of the document, title of the document, title of the website, author or producer of the website, url, date (if given) and date accessed. Various style formats such as Chicago, MLA and APA put these elements in different order using different conventions. See the websites below for further information and examples.

 

Style Guides

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1 Kate L. Turabian et al., A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers, 8th edition., Chicago guides to writing, editing, and publishing (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 135–136.