Primary sources — what are they?

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 characterised 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:

Lux Toilet Soap, by Lever Brothers (N.Z.) Limited, 1937

  • was recorded after (or as response to) an event 
  • is a memoir of a person who was at the event, or
  • was created by witnesses who experienced or viewed the event.

Primary sources can be in many formats including:

  • letter, diary, newspaper, document, (eg: poster)
  • photograph (including digital), video recording
  • manuscript, journals, speeches, interviews, email
  • documents produced by government agencies
  • audio recordings, research data
  • physical artefacts, such as paintings, clothes, tools and buildings.

Primary sources can be published or unpublished.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 Unpublished sources are often intended for a personal or private audience when they are created.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

Who uses primary sources?

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.

Why use primary sources with students?

  • Erena, by Horatio Robley, ca 1864Primary sources are an unfiltered, personal access point into history
  • Students get a strong sense of the context of historical events from the perspective of the person who documented the event
  • Students engage in critical thinking and knowledge construction by starting with primary source material, pursuing a line of inquiry and reaching deeper understanding
  • Primary sources are what historians analyse to interpret the past
  • Primary sources have the cultural power to become iconic. A great example of this is the Treaty of Waitangi
  • Viewing primary source materials also highlights the historical and cultural biases through which an event was viewed ( eg: two different documents about the Springbok tour may show vastly different views of the same event)
  • Reading (hearing/watching) the original voice rather than the interpretation of a secondary scholar creates a strong sense of the historical event
  • Viewing primary source material also highlights the historical and cultural biases through which an event was viewed when it happened (e.g. two primary source documents about the Springbok tour may show vastly different views of the same event). This then requires deep critical thinking on the part of the student as they follow their inquiry
  • Primary sources often overturn generalisations and clichés about historical events and are a way of analysing our own contemporary values

How to use primary sources with students

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:

  1. Who created this item?
  2. When was it created and why?
  3. What does it tell you about an event?
  4. What questions does it raise?
  5. Why is it historically important?
  6. What type of primary source is it?

You can read more suggestions for using primary sources in your teaching in Educators' Resources.

Where do we find primary source materials?

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:

  • Libraries, museums, archives and art galleries
  • At home - letters, diaries, documents and photographs
  • Local marae (documents and artefacts)

What is a secondary source?

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.

Primary source images on this page

Bach at Te Hatepe, by Paul Thompson ca 1984Lux Toilet Soap, by Lever Brothers (N.Z.) Limited, 1937. Alexander Turnbull Library. Eph-B-KNIT-1937-01-back

Erena, by Horatio Robley, ca 1864. Alexander Turnbull Library. A-080-009

Bach at Te Hatepe, by Paul Thompson ca 1984. Alexander Turnbull Library. PA12-5644-22