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Stony Brook University

Primary Sources: Home

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are research materials that document an event or activity at or near the time it occurred, and communicate the subjective interpretations made by the very people that created the sources.


They can be reassembled to bring history to life and to construct meaning from the past. The content of these unique sources and the diverse formats in which they are represented demonstrate the complex nature of history. From artwork to diaries to real-time blog posts, these unfiltered materials are historically compelling, as they provide tangible evidence of people, places, and events.


The scope of primary sources extends to include eyewitness accounts that are recalled at a later time and materials found alongside artifacts in nature (called “biofacts”), such as hand-made tools. Examples of primary sources include:


  • Books, newspapers, pamphlets, magazines, and journals

  • Manuscripts (letters, diaries)

  • Maps

  • Paintings

  • Photographs

  • Artifacts

  • Audio and video recordings

  • Oral histories

  • Dissertations

  • Government documents

  • Patents

  • Data and data sets

Primary sources are different from secondary sources, which are written later and usually comment on or analyze historic events or original documents.

Primary Sources at Stony Brook University

To find primary sources at Stony Brook, access the collections of the University Libraries

You can include various words in your search that will help you locate primary source material. 

A effective, general word to include in your searches is sources.

For example, if you are looking for primary sources about civil rights in New York, you can do a "keyword" search for civil rights and New York and sources.

Also try these subject headings often used to describe primary sources:

  • Correspondence
  • Diaries
  • Interviews
  • Personal narratives

Library Subject Guides

Browse the Library's Subject Guides for information on specific research topics or contact a Library Subject Specialist for assistance.

Director and Librarian

Kristen J. Nyitray's picture
Kristen J. Nyitray
Director, Special Collections & University Archives
University Archivist
Associate Librarian
E-2320, Melville Library
Stony Brook University
Stony Brook, NY 11794-3323
t: 631.632.7119
f: 631.632.1829

Example of a Primary Source: Letter

Letter authored by George Clinton,
first governor of New York, to Thomas Jefferson,
dated February 21, 1793.