In historical scholarship, a primary source is a document or other source of information that was created at or near the time being studied, often by the people being studied. In this sense primary does not mean superior. It refers to creation by the primary players, and is distinguished from a secondary source, which is a historical work, like a scholarly book or article, built up from primary sources.
Ideally, a historian will use all available primary sources created by the people involved, at the time being studied. In practice some sources have been destroyed, while others are not available for research. Perhaps the only eyewitness reports of an event may be memoirs, autobiographies, or oral interviews taken years later. Sometimes the only documents relating to an event or person in the distant past were written decades or centuries later. This is a common problem in classical studies, where sometimes only a summary of a book has survived.
The accuracy and objectiveness of primary sources is a constant concern for historians. Participants and eyewitnesses may misunderstand events or distort their reports (deliberately or unconsciously) to enhance their own image or importance. Such effects can increase over time, and historians pay special attention to memory problems and efforts by participants to recall the past according to their own script. Government reports may be censored or altered for propaganda or cover-up purposes. Less frequently, later documents may be the more accurate, as for example when a death leaves survivors feeling more comfortable about telling embarrassing details.
Accurate history is based on primary sources, as evaluated by the community of scholars, who report their findings in books, articles and papers. Primary sources are often difficult to interpret and may have hidden challenges. Obsolete meanings of familiar words and social context are among the traps that await the...