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Making Bibliographic Sense of Primary Sources: Home

How to Cite Primary Sources

Need help citing primary sources? Here's a guide that might be helpful:

Introduction: Finding, Evaluating, and Citing Digitial Primary Sources

You are taking a history class and you need to write a paper that includes primary documents. Some professors won't let you use electronic sources, or images of primary sources that have been posted online, and others will. Why? And how do you cite primary documents that have been digitized and posted online? Can an URL accurately describe a 15th century manuscript? How do we cite a document like this: 


This guide is an attempt to explain why some academics hesitate to include digitized sources in the category of "primary sources". It offers suggestions on how to cite such digitized documents so that it is clear you are referring to a digitized version of a 15th century manuscript. Someone else digitized the document, and they did so much later than it's original date of creation. Technology allows for the reproduction of images which might look very similar to the original, but is not the same. Our citations need to reflect this.

Before we start, it's important to be clear on what a primary source is. Primary sources are first hand accounts of an event; materials created by participants or witness of the event(s) under study; original records created at the time the historical events occurred, and raw data for the historian.

By comparison, a secondary document discusses a subject, but is written after the time the event occurred, by someone other than an eyewitness. It contains explanations, judgements or discussions of past events, and often explains or interprets primary sources.