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Michigan State University

SW 905: Historical and Current Analysis of Social Work and Social Problems: Primary Sources

Making Sense of Evidence

Part of the History Matters web site, this resource "helps students and teachers make effective use of primary sources. “Making Sense of Documents ” provide strategies for analyzing online primary materials, with interactive exercises and a guide to traditional and online sources. “Scholars in Action ” segments show how scholars puzzle out the meaning of different kinds of primary sources, allowing you to try to make sense of a document yourself then providing audio clips in which leading scholars interpret the document and discuss strategies for overall analysis."

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are the direct, uninterpreted records of the subject of your research project. As such, a primary source can be almost anything, depending on the subject and purpose of your research. Be creative in thinking of possible relevant primary sources of information on your topic.

Why Use Primary Sources?

A primary source is as close as you can get to the event, person, phenomenon, or other subject of your research. But a primary source on its own is likely only a snippet or snapshot of the full picture; thus it is often difficult to interpret on its own. Reference sources and secondary analyses give you a framework for interpreting primary sources. But the real work of research is examining primary sources to test the interpretations, analyses, and views you find in reference and secondary sources. Use primary sources to find evidence that challenges these interpretations, or evidence in favor of one scholar's interpretation over that of another; then posit an interpretation of your own, and look for more primary sources for evidence to confirm or refute your thesis. When you present your conclusions, you will have produced another secondary source to aid others in their research.

Types of Primary Sources

  • Lab reports: experiments, observations, etc.
  • Historical documents: official papers, maps, treaties, etc.
  • First –person accounts: diaries, memoirs, letters, interviews, speeches, etc.
  • Recordings: audio, video, photographic, etc.
  • Artifacts: manufactured items such as clothing, furniture, tools, buildings
  • Newspapers: some types of articles
  • Government publications: statistics, court reports, etc.
  • Internet resources: see, especially, digitized versions of historical documents
  • Manuscript collections: collected writings, notes, letters, and other unpublished works
  • Books: extensive and detailed discussions of a particular topic or set of topics, written by the scholars and researchers who came up with the ideas or discovered the findings

Additional Resource

Michigan State University