People leave clues about their lives in many forms, including letters, photos, even emails. These items are created as people experience events, and record what they saw, heard and felt. They are called primary sources.
Primary sources are the raw material of history. They are original, firsthand and often unedited and are created continually. Primary sources can be digital like a blog post, tweet or a Facebook profile. Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of their format. Historians and others study primary sources to discover what happened in the past. Primary sources can overturn generalisations about historical events. They can become iconic (Treaty of Waitangi) and can define a period of history and our understanding of it.
A primary source is a record which has been:
Primary sources can be in many formats including:
Primary sources can be published or unpublished. Published sources include books, newspapers, magazines, websites, reports and documentary material. Unpublished sources are often intended for a personal or private audience when they are created. Examples include: photographs, video, art works, letters, diaries and emails.
Primary source materials provide a range of voices that help history come alive. Each example was created in a specific cultural, historical and personal context. Sometimes an item may reflect attitudes and values that are unacceptable today. We need to be aware of the context when using primary sources.
“Just because something is ‘firsthand’ from the past, doesn’t mean it is ‘the truth.” Chicago Metro History Education Center
Writers, researchers, artists, historians and teachers frequently use primary sources because they offer an original eyewitness account. By reading, viewing or listening to them, people discover and understand past events and lives.
Within this section of the website you will find galleries of digitised primary source items. There are also a variety of resources to assist you. Including links to more primary source materials, tools for reuse, educators guides, lesson ideas linking to the galleries and more.
To analyse a primary source item in the classroom or library, consider the following questions:
You can read more suggestions for using primary sources in your teaching in Educators’ Resources.
The National Library of New Zealand has millions of New Zealand and Pacific cultural primary sources in its collections. Many are available online. We have developed a set of thematically arranged galleries that show a variety of New Zealand primary sources. See More primary sources for other sources of digital primary source materials from here and abroad.
You can also find these materials at:
A secondary source is one created by analysing, synthesising, evaluating and reworking the information gleaned from one or more primary sources. A secondary source provides interpretations and explanations usually created after the event took place but can also contain original primary sources such as photographs and eyewitness accounts. A secondary source could be an essay, journal article, book etc.
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