Primary sources

A collage of records from the National Archives collection.
A collage of records from the National Archives collection.

Introduction

Primary sources are evidence of history. They are the key to reconstructing and interpreting the past. To use primary sources is to practise critical thinking, and to learn how history is made and how to make it yourself.

This page is an introduction to primary sources – especially archival records – and how to use them.

 

 

 

 

More records from the National Archives collection
More records from the National Archives collection

Primary versus secondary

A primary source is a first-hand record of the past. It could be a:

  • diary
  • letter
  • receipt
  • list
  • interview
  • photograph
  • film
  • sound recording.

Primary source records are created by witnesses to the events or issues their records represent.

A secondary source is an interpretation of the past. It could be:

  • a history textbook
  • an encyclopedia entry
  • a biography.

Secondary sources are often created long after the events they describe, by people who were not there at the time. Secondary sources can be a good introduction to a historical issue or event, since they are usually based on a range of primary sources. But to learn about history for yourself, it is best to look at primary sources.

National Archives of Australia, Canberra
National Archives of Australia, Canberra

Locating primary sources

Primary sources are in many places:

  • family homes – photographs, letters, diaries, memories
  • historical societies, museums, libraries
  • archives:

    • of churches, clubs, schools, hospitals
    • of state and territory governments
    • National Archives of Australia (the archives of the Australian Government).

Once you locate a collection, how do you find the records that interest you? If the collection is private, you will need to speak to the custodian. If the collection is public, there will be someone to help you in your quest for records.

Archival files awaiting issue to researchers
Archival files awaiting issue to researchers

Selecting your sources

Archives hold a lot of records. The difficulty often lies in sifting through them to identify what you need. Don't be put off by the amount of material. But be very clear about your purpose.

Archival records are full of information. Some details are fascinating, and it is easy to get sidetracked. You may need to remind yourself, continually, of your inquiry or your specific task. Or, you may want to change tack!

Archival records have other compelling qualities. The paper may be beautifully yellowed. A letterhead may use swirly, decorative typography. Such are the delights and distractions of archival researchers. It can take some discipline to remain focused.

You might want to scan a heap of files to gain a sense of the big picture. It will also help to bear in mind the audience for which you will present your work. Which records would be most compelling? Which records speak the loudest and clearest about the issues? And, what am I looking for again?

Language may be unfamiliar
Language may be unfamiliar

Reading records

The records you're reading may use language unfamiliar to you. What does 'M/D' mean? It might be worth spending time working that out before you go on. Or it may be better to press on. Sometimes if you see something over and over, you come to understand it. You might then see the term 'mixed descent' and realise that's what 'M/D' means.

Likewise, you may be reading a telex. But what's a telex? While you're sitting in front of a pile of records, don't worry. You can consult a dictionary any time.

Clearly, language and culture change over time. A term used in one decade may lose favour in the next, and be almost unheard of after that. As you read, bear in mind the context in which the record was created. Try to imagine yourself in that time and place. For example, in some times and places it was common practice to disparage certain groups of people (such as women or Indigenous people).

It is important to note the reference number
It is important to note the reference number

Taking notes

If a record interests you, pause to consider. Is it central to your inquiry? Does it 'speak volumes' about one aspect of your inquiry? Is it useful background information? Does it shed light on a related issue? Or does it raise a further question you want to follow up? You may want to quote one or two lines. You may want a copy of the whole page. Or you may simply want to paraphrase – summarise the content in your own words. Note down what interested you about it – you might not remember later.

And importantly, whenever you locate a source that is useful, keep track of the details:

  • Who created it?
  • When?
  • Was it created by someone at work (and if so, in what role) or 'off the person's own bat'?
  • For what audience was the record created?
  • How would you find it again?

This last point is critical. Every archival record has a reference number. If a record interests you, and especially if you write some notes about it and intend to quote it, note the reference number. This simple act will prevent a headache down the track. If you fail to note the author of a letter or the date, as long as you have the reference number, you can return to check the details. Without the reference number, your source is lost.

A researcher in the National Archives reading room
A researcher in the National Archives reading room

Interrogating your sources

Once you have a good set of relevant information, you need to think carefully about whether it is enough to address your inquiry.

  • What don't your sources tell you?
  • Do they favour one perspective on an issue?
  • Can you think of other sources that might contradict your primary sources?

You may need to consult some other primary sources to find a missing voice or an alternative perspective. Or maybe you just need to fill in some detail.

For example, you've been looking at certificates of exemption from the dictation test and you've found some test passages. So you have a good sense of what it was like to be tested. You know that such testing came about with the Immigration Restriction Act 1901. But what exactly did the law say? If you find it, you can quote directly from it.

You may also need to consult some secondary sources. For example, you've found records on the Aboriginal 'freedom rides', but need to know more about Charles Perkins. Here's where a biography, or a who's who, can be very useful. It is worth cross-checking multiple sources – publications can be wrong!

When you read your sources again, if you feel they give you a good sense of the events and issues – from various perspectives – you are ready to write some history.