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What is a Primary Source?

And why are Primary Sources important to historical analysis?

Historians use primary sources to answer questions about the past. In fact, history as an academic discipline is based on the study of primary sources, so it is very important to understand why they matter and how to use them properly.

How might historians of the future find out about how we eat today? They could look at restaurant menus, cookbooks, advertisements, materials from cooking and nutrition classes, restaurant reviews, newspaper articles about food and culture, food blogs, maybe even people’s twitter feeds. These are all primary sources, and they offer different views of our eating habits.

Primary sources are materials that were made at the time of the event that they portray and document the ideas and activities of people in the past. Letters, photographs, reports, films, government publications, diaries, newspaper articles—primary sources come in many forms and these are all examples. Primary sources offer historians access to the past, but they do not provide all the answers. Historians are responsible for thinking carefully about what primary sources can tell us about the past.

Finding primary sources can be challenging for historians. Primary sources are found in many different places. However, archives and special collection libraries specifically collect these kinds of materials and they can be a good place to start. Archives and special collections can often be found in university libraries, as well as part of city, state, and national governments. Some primary sources are even available online. At NC Eats, you can find primary sources in The Archive.

ACTIVITY: Analyze a Primary Source

Develop a Historical Question?

Primary sources are used to answer historical questions. This means the first step of any research project is developing the question you will investigate. To begin, decide on a historical question that relates to the history of food and eating in North Carolina. Often, this is the hardest part—even for professional historians! If you are having trouble thinking of a historical question, you may use one of the examples from the list below:

  • How did the Extension Service change the way North Carolinians ate?
  • How did the Great Depression affect North Carolinians' diet?
  • What changed about the way North Carolinians obtained food between the 1910s and 1960s?
  • How did the amount of money a family had impact their access to food and information about food?
  • How did ideas about nutrition and proper eating change between the 1910s and the 1960s?

Choose a Primary Source

Next, go to The Archive and choose a primary source that you think will help answer your historical question. For this activity, choose a document or film rather than a photograph. Sometimes finding primary sources that will help answer your question takes some real effort and some real digging. As you explore The Archive:

  • Keep your question in mind. Let it be your guide. It can be easy to get distracted.
  • Make sure that the date of the primary source is relevant to the timeframe of your question.
  • Pay attention to who has authored documents that are useful to you. They might have written other materials, too.
  • Brainstorm keywords related to your topic and question, but think broadly. For instance, important information about “nutrition” might be found in materials about “food.”
  • Remember! Sometimes you find the information you need in unlikely places.

Describe the Primary Source

Now it is time to think carefully about the primary source you have selected. Login to your Be a Historian account so that you can take notes about items in The Archive. Use this space to answer the following the questions about your primary source:

  1. What type of source is this? What function did it serve?
  2. When and where was the source created?
  3. Who created this primary source?
  4. For what audience do you think this primary source was created?
  5. What is the subject of the source? What is it about?
  6. Based on this information, what does the source tell us about the past?
  7. How does the primary source help you answer your historical question?

Make sure to answer to these questions in your Be a Historian account. You will use it in the next activities.