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History (Yale-NUS College): Primary Sources

Primary Sources

A primary source is a document that was created at the time of an event or subject of study. It is created first-hand by observers or participants of that event or subject.

For example, if you are studying the experience of immigrants to Singapore as a colonial port city from 1819 - 1945, you might consult the following primary sources:

  • Local newspapers from the time in English and other languages
  • A novel by an immigrant to Singapore about her experience
  • Census records showing the various ethnic groups settled in Singapore at the time
  • A trunk filled with personal items that an immigrant brought with her to Singapore
  • Autobiographies of immigrants, including those published many years later
  • Maps that show the location of immigrant settlements
  • Travel and immigration documents of immigrants from that time
  • Oral histories of immigrants giving interviews about their experience

A primary source does not have to be a written document; it can also be an object, building, film, painting, poster, song etc. A primary source is made at the time of an event or subject of study, but it does not matter what it is.

Secondary sources are created after an event or subject of study and are removed from the actual event. Books written by historians about a topic are secondary sources because they are not created first-hand by observers or participants. See the tabs on Articles/ Databases and Books to learn more about secondary sources.

Newspapers

Newspapers can be primary sources if they are presenting first-hand accounts at the time of the event you are studying. These are excellent historical newspaper resources. For more information about newsmedia resources, see the Newspaper/Media Research Research Guide.

Primary Source Databases

These are some examples of excellent resources in which you can find primary sources:

Oral Histories

These are examples of excellent resources in which you can find oral histories:

These are good resources on how to conduct your own oral history projects: