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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

How to Use Primary Sources

What is a primary source?

A primary source is a record of an event or time period that is from that time. It may be a document of some sort, such as the first city charter, or a letter written by John Ball. There are many potential primary sources, and they include, but are not limited to: diaries, newspaper and magazine articles, tape recordings, film records, as well as visual materials such as paintings, maps and photographs. Historians and others study primary sources to gain understanding of the past; their published works (including textbooks used in classrooms) are called secondary sources.

Where can I find primary sources?

Some primary sources can be found in published sources such as collections of historical documents that are available in most libraries. Many, however, had never been transcribed or reproduced and published in any form. To study them, researchers must go to libraries, archives or historical societies. Many people don’t realize that their own family records contain primary sources. Family photographs, journals and letters, saved newspaper clippings, and other items can be just as helpful in understanding the past. If families are reluctant to part with their records, technology has allowed us to make many such sources available in digital form on the Web.

How can a historical image help me understand the past?

Just as a letter or newspaper article is a source of information, so are images. By looking closely and carefully at an image, we can gather this information and gain greater knowledge of how people lived and what their world was like. Pictures are often more effective than words in helping us understand the past, but it is important to remember that an image of an event, person or place is only one of many possible sources, and needs to be balanced with others. And it is important to study each image carefully to unlock the doorway to the past it provides.

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