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Primary Resources for Art History Research

Primary resources provide evidence to support key claims and arguments in research. This guide defines primary resources, provides evaluation criteria, and offers strategies for finding primary resources in large library catalogs and digital collections.

Evaluate Primary Resources

Firsthand Accounts or Written at the Time of the Event?

  • Is this source a firsthand account, written by a witness or participant or creative artist?
  • Was it written at the time of the event or later?
  • Is the account based on interviews, testimony or evidence from those directly involved?
  • Identify all known information about the source

Authenticity of the source itself

  • Is this an exact reproduction / facsimile, or a reconstruction or composite sampling? Find the most authentic version of the original source and cite that if you find it.
  • If a digital image reproduction, compare several versions of the image, and use the most authentic version. Note all identifying information: creator/artist, title, when created, medium/technique, size of the original artwork,  museum or archive where the work resides, and the specifics of where you found the resource.

What is the Point of View?

  • Can you detect any biases embedded in your source, and if so, how do plan to address this?
  • What do you know about the author of the document and his or her relationship to the events and issues described?
  • Did the author have a stake in how an event was remembered?
  • Did he or she want this issue to be perceived in a particular way?
  • For texts, what judgments or assumptions are imbedded in the creator’s choice of words?


  • For whom was the source created?
  • Was the author writing for a specific audience?
  • Was the document meant to be private (e.g. a diary); to communicate with a small audience, like a letter or internal report; or to reach a bigger audience, like a speech or a published autobiography?

Compare the multiple pieces of evidence, or accounts of one event provided by different primary sources, in order to evaluate the reliability of each document.

  • Do they conflict and why? Consider explanations for this.
  • Do they concur? [the account provided may be more accurate when multiple sources are found]

Creative works

  • If a creative work, are there multiple versions, states, drafts, sketches which might inform analysis?
  • Are there creative works from which you can draw comparisons with other creative works of similar or different media (e.g. art, photographs, music, poetry, prose)
  • Compare mentors, peers, within the style, time period, artistic circles.


For more information,

Library of Congress Using Primary Sources.

National Archives of the United States. Document Analysis Worksheets

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