Alexandria Library -- Special Collections
Document of the Month
September 2007

Primary Source Documents

According to the Library of Congress: “Primary sources are actual records that have survived from the past, like letters, photographs, articles of clothing and music. They are different from secondary sources, which are accounts of events written sometime after they happened.” A primary source is a first-hand account of something or someone, whereas a secondary source is an interpretation or analysis of that account. When looking to understand primary sources, it is important to identify the purpose and the source of the document. For example, your diary is a primary source document. A book about your life using your diary is a secondary source. It is not always easy to recognize primary sources from secondary. The documents below provide a good example of some of the questions that arise when identifying them.

Can you identify which of these documents is a primary source document?

On January 27, 1870, a group of Alexandria merchants and citizens signed a letter to the General Assembly of Virginia recommending Edward Sangster, a lawyer, to the position of Judge of the County Court. The handwritten letter and a type-set version are part of the Sangster Papers at the Special Collections branch. In addition to their depiction of Alexandria events, these papers demonstrate an important lesson in the identification of primary source documents. Look carefully at the two images below and see if you can you identify the primary source.

Hint: In this case, the answer is not in the format. You can also place your mouse over the images for additional clues and questions to consider.

Think about the source of the document.  Who wrote this and when?  Is it a first-hand account of an event? Is this the actual record from the past?         Think about the purpose of this document.  Do you think the creator is attempting to analyze something?  Would you consider this a first-hand account and a record from the past?

And the answer is...

Although the papers look different, they are both the first account of an event, the actual records of the past, and are the surviving documents from this moment in time. So, the answer is...both.

Examining Primary Sources

Primary source documents present the opportunity to learn about people and events through first-hand accounts. They give you the chance to critically examine materials of the past and develop your own conclusions about them. The two papers shown above are particularly interesting after examining the differences and the similarities between them. Like many primary sources, these papers raises as many questions as they answer.

What are some differences between these two documents?

At first glance it appears that the text is the same and the format is the only difference between these items. However, upon closer inspection it is evident that the text is slightly different and that not all of the names are the same. There are only four names that appear on both documents. Those names are: F.L. Brockett of Brawner & Co.; Geo. H. Robinson of George H. & Sons, commercial merchant; S.King Shay, teacher; and C.F. Suttle of Suttle & Stuart, commercial merchant and plastermill owner. Why are these the only names on both items? Are there additional pages to the handwritten document that show more names? Please contact the Special Collections branch if you have information about any of these items, individuals, or this event. Send us an email.

More about the names on the handwritten document (according to the Alexandria City Directories, 1870 & 1871):

More on the names on the typed document (according to the Alexandria City Directories, 1870 & 1871):

Do you recognize a common theme among the signers?

Many worked for the OA&MRR, the Orange, Alexandria & Manassas Railroad. The Orange and Alexandria Railroad was established in the 1848. It was an important gateway to Virginia's Piedmont during the Civil War. The Manassas Gap Railroad was established in 1850. Although much of the right-of-way was cleared, the railroad was incomplete by the start of the Civil War and rebuilding after the war was difficult. Many railroad companies experienced financial troubles after the Civil War forcing them to merge. The Orange and Alexandria and the Manassas Gap Railroad Companies were no exception. By the 1870's, these companies merged together to create the Orange, Alexandria & Manassas Railroad. Interestingly, one of the stations on this railroad route carries the Sangster family name: Sangster Station in Fairfax County.

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