The Practicing History Podcast is back! You can download it at the bottom of this page. This week, we’re asking the question, “What is a primary source?” In this episode, I discuss the nature and use of primary sources in historical interpretation. This is a good introduction for those interested in more than just a textbook definition of historical sources. However, if you do want a textbook introduction, here you go — right from Wikipedia:
In the study of history as an academic discipline, a primary source (also called original source or evidence) is an artifact, a document, diary, manuscript, autobiography, a recording, or other source of information that was created at the time under study. It serves as an original source of information about the topic.
Primary sources are distinguished from secondary sources, which cite, comment on, or build upon primary sources. Generally, accounts written after the fact with the benefit (and possible distortions) of hindsight are secondary. A secondary source may also be a primary source depending on how it is used. For example, a memoir would be considered a primary source in research concerning its author or about his or her friends characterized within it, but the same memoir would be a secondary source if it were used to examine the culture in which its author lived. “Primary” and “secondary” should be understood as relative terms, with sources categorized according to specific historical contexts and what is being studied.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primary_source, accessed 3 August 2016
Wikipedia’s definition isn’t too bad, but in the podcast, I treat primary documents in a bit more depth and add a bit more complexity.