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Applied Humanities: Primary Sources

Our guide for Applied Humanities students - helping you make the most of the library

Introduction to primary sources

In Arts and Humanities study, we use the term 'primary source' to mean anything that you are analysing or interpreting as an object of study. Simple examples of this might be:

  • an artefact - such as a piece of jewellery from the Staffordshire Hoard, the Bayeux tapestry or a painting by Botticelli
  • a literary text - such as a novel or collection of poetry; or even a film
  • a historical document or religious text - such as a diary or a report written at the time of the events; or the Bible, Qu'ran, etc.

'Secondary sources' are sources that seek to comment on, explain, interpret or analyse primary sources. Your essays are secondary sources in this way, as are the academic books and articles that you use to support your arguments.

Yes, absolutely. As an Applied Humanities student, you will be looking at changes in the ways that humans have shaped and understood the world around them. This means that secondary sources can be interrogated as primary sources as well.

An example might be a book or a journal article about Colonialism in the 19th century, written in the 1950s, which you are analysing from today's perspectives.

What makes the difference is how you are using the source: if you're using the ideas it contains as a way of supporting your interpretation of another text or object, then you are usually using it as a secondary source. If you are using other texts to comment on, explain, interpret or analyse it as cultural or historical phenomenon, then you are using it as a primary source.

Primary sources online at Newman

Featured resource: John Johnson Collection

Playbill brom the Theatre Royal Birmingham, 1892. An example of resources available on the John Johnson collection database.

The John Johnson collection is a database of 'printed ephemera' from the 17th to the early 20th Century.

'Ephemera' are usually cheap, mass-produced documents or media that are designed to be time-limited or disposable. Examples include:

  • Advertisements
  • Posters, pamphlets and flyers
  • Product packaging
  • Postcards
  • Graffiti

Ephemera can be commercial, political or personal in nature and can be a great window into the day-to-day concerns of people in the past, beyond the permanent (or at least more long-lasting) accounts of the culture written in contemporary books, periodicals and other media.