Skip to Main Content

Primary Sources: Primary Sources - Types and Definitions

A guide to finding and using Primary source materials

Types of Primary Sources

The following types of materials can be considered primary sources:

  • Public Records
    • Census records
    • Church or Synagogue records
    • Divorce records
    • Education records
    • Land and Title records
    • Military records
  • Personal papers
    • Journals
    • Diaries
    • Correspondence / letters
  • Organization records
  • Newspaper articles
  • Original research
  • Original works of literature
  • Photographs
  • Art
  • Maps
  • Video and film
  • Sound recordings
  • Interviews

Information compiled from:  Horowitz, Lou.  Knowing Where to Look:  the ultimate guide to research.  Cincinnati : Writer's Digest, 1984.
Also from:
(retrieved 9/16/2015)

What is a Primary source?

Primary sources, generally speaking, are original materials on a subject; however, each discipline may have a slightly different definition for primary source. Historians consider primary sources to be material written by the subject (if a person) or material that was written about a subject by someone who was alive during the time period. The types of primary sources can also vary widely depending on the discipline. The box on the left side of this page lists many types of primary source documents; definitions can be found in the bottom box on this page. 

Note: If you are unsure about whether your sources can be considered primary, please check with your professor.

What is a Secondary source?

Secondary sources are those in which the author gives a second-hand account of the information. For example, many books published about George Washington are secondary sources. The author may have studied original material, such as diaries, in creating an account of Washington's life, but if it is the author's account instead of the original diaries, documents, etc, then it is a secondary source.

For most research papers, secondary sources will probably suffice; however, if your professor requires the use of primary sources, this guide can be used to identify them.

Primary Source Definitions

The following definitions and links were compiled by Columbia University in New York.  While the specific references to Seneca Village and other New York-specific areas and municipal departments are not relevant, the definitions and examples are very useful and generally translate to other cities and states.  


Public Records

All levels of government--city (local), state, and national (country)--collect information about people and places. These types of records include census, immigration, and naturalization records, title deeds (which help track real estate transactions), pension and military records, trial transcripts, war diaries, military records, and so on. Such documents are mostly used by historians, family genealogists, and other researchers, but many are also available to members of the general public. You can find these records in national archives, libraries, historical societies, collectors’ homes, and museums. Some records are only available on microfilm, but in many cases you can see the real thing--if an opportunity arises, go check it out!


The federal census, taken decennially (every ten years), is the way the U.S. government counts people. The goal is to gather and record data about every living person in the country. The first federal census was taken in 1790 for the purpose of determining how many delegates each state would have in the newly created House of Representatives.The censuses included a great deal of information. In addition to counting individuals, census takers ask personal questions of the household head in order to learn how many people are in the household, their ages, marital status, and income and education levels.

While the federal census was conducted in the years ending in zero (1800, 1810, etc.), from 1825 to 1875, the New York State was conducted in years ending in five(1825, 1835, etc.). In 1845, the New York State census added more categories and was considered the most complete census of any state. The 1855 Population Schedule (as it was officially called), which is the census that was used to gather information on Seneca Village, collected data on such useful information as voting rights status, literacy, and property ownership, as well as the full names of every member of the household.

Birth and Death Records

Birth and the death are two events that occur in any person’s life. Wherever the person is when either event occurs, a government organization is there to record it. In New York City, the Bureau of Statistics has recent birth and death records, but the records for the 1800s have been microfilmed and moved to the Municipal Archives.

Birth and death records give much more than details of the birth or death. For instance, birth records include the names, ages, and occupations of the parents. Death records include place of residence, age, cause of death (an excellent source of information of health and disease), and burial place. Additional information, such as race (African-Americans were listed as "black"), was often added in a comments section.

City Directories

The City Directory was like a telephone book without the telephone numbers. Directories for New York City were published in various forms from 1786 to 1932. Three publishers, David Longworth, John Dogget, Jr., and John F. Trow, played a major role in producing them and were three of the best-known publishers. Data collection began each year on May 1—the traditional "Moving Day" in the city. The directories included a wealth of information on "heads of household," other individuals, businesses, civic organizations, churches, organized groups, and government officials. Surnames (last names) were listed in alphabetical order, along with address and, in many cases, occupation. There were also racial distinctions, with people of African ancestry listed as "colored"; sometimes the word used as "col’d" or some other variation of the word.

Church Registers

In any community, houses of worship play an important role in recording history. Churches document many significant events in the lives of people, including baptisms, marriages, and burials (deaths). Like the city's birth and death records, church registers include a great deal of information about the members of a community.

There was a strong spiritual element in Seneca Village, as evidenced by the fact that there were three churches in the community. The African Union Methodist Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Branch Church Militant both had African American congregations. All Angels, an Episcopal parish church, celebrated with an integrated congregation.

The Parish Register of All Angels’ Church, 1847-1871, is the only parish register found so far that covers Seneca Village. Maintained meticulously by the Reverend Thomas McClure Peters, it provides information about individuals but also reveals many details about their relationships with each other as well.

Affidavits of Petition

Affidavits of Petition are legal documents, sworn under oath, that make a request of some sort. When the New York City legislature got approval from the state to take land by eminent domain in order to build Central Park, many Seneca Village property owners used affidavits of petition to protest the low valuations that had been given their land. (Eminent domain is a legal act taking private land for public use, such as a park or highway.) These petitions reveal many details about how people felt when they found out that their land was being purchased by the city.


Maps are wonderful tools for reconstructing the past. Maps can help researchers visualize and interpret how an area has changed or has remained the same over a period of time.

Maps can give a huge range of information, from the height of the hills, to the names of roads, places, bodies of water, buildings, and communities--many of which may no longer exist. Don’t be surprised if your perspective changes over and over again as you learn about the symbols and keys used to help you understand all that maps tell us!

Two maps, the Manhattan Square Benefit Map, done in about 1838, and the Central Park Condemnation Map, done in 1856, were very important in researching Seneca Village. Not only do they show boundaries, structures, inhabitants, lots sizes, and so on, but when they are compared, you can see what has changed and what has stayed the same over approximately two decades. The 1856 map is particularly useful because it includes both buildings and the names of property owners.


Photographs and their predecessors, stereographs and daguerreotypes, are another kind of record that helps us understand the past. Photographs are exciting because they help us visualize what people, places, and things looked like. Analyzing photos can reveal information about the point of view of the photographer, as well as about the technology of the period--how things were made and used. The earliest known photos of New York date to 1853, just a few years before the razing of Seneca Village. There are no known photos of the village itself.


The papers, letters, diaries, account books, wills, and other records that have been preserved by museums, libraries, archives, churches, and families together provide the building blocks for the historian. To date, researchers have found very little personal material about Seneca Village. But there is always the hope that a diary or letter will be discovered--and since most of this material would be found in the home of a Seneca Village descendant, the more people who know about the village, the more likely it is that this will happen.


Handbills were used in the nineteenth century (and before) as a tool for communication--for "getting the word out" on events and newsworthy items. (We still use handbills today; only we call them posters or advertisements.) A close "reading" of a handbill can tell us a lot about the event it describes.

Political Cartoons

Political cartoons, which appeared in all kinds of newspapers and periodicals in the nineteenth century, are visual documents that can be "read" in the same way that text can be read. A political cartoon is a visual representation of the artist's opinion about a situation or event. Cartoons are usually sarcastic or biting, and they are meant to trigger an emotional reaction, such as empathy, anger, or knee-slappin’ laughter. But their most important role is to make you think about the event they portray.


Some newspapers appear daily; others are weeklies, monthlies, bi-monthlies, or even quarterlies. Some only appear when there is enough money to publish and produce them. Newspapers are a major source for historians. They capture events and opinions, and they cover a variety of topics--local and international, business and real estate, culture and people. You can use newspaper advertisements to learn more about how people lived and you can use obituaries to find about more about how they died. The "voice" of a newspaper, or its editorials, can tell us a great deal about how a section of the community thinks


Constructed objects that are available for interpretation and discussion are known as artifacts. Portraits and paintings, furniture, equipment, tools, clothing, toys, hairpins, jewelry, sculpture, remnants of buildings, headstones from cemeteries ... that’s right, if it was made by a person, it’s an object worth investigating. This type of evidence can stimulate the imagination and lead to useful hypothesizing and educated guessing.

Objects are most useful when they can be seen in three dimensions. But sometimes the best you can do is look at a two-dimensional version, like a photograph. Objects can be studied for what they tell us about the period in which they were made and the people who used them.

(Retrieved from web