Are letters primary sources?

Yes, a letter is a primary source. However, sometimes you may not be given access to the actual letter, for example, if it is damaged, fragile or very old. In these cases, you will be given a facsimile or digital copy of the letter. This still counts as a primary source because the content of the letter has not been changed, it is simply being preserved.

Letter from Sigmund Freud
A letter from Sigmund Freud as an example of a primary source. It is a digital scan of the original letter, but it still counts as a primary source.

A letter can be used as a primary source in a number of different scenarios. You may have already come across our information about primary and secondary sources, and the differences between them. Primary and secondary sources complement each other and both are needed for research projects. It is worthwhile to find out the different ways in which they can be used to complete a research paper. Here we take a closer look why exactly a letter qualifies as a primary source.

Why does a letter qualify as a primary source in my paper?

Generally speaking, letters are used as historical evidence or evidence in legal cases. Letters are written records of events and communication between people, so any information contained within is evidence of an event or interaction which happened.

When conducting historical research, a letter provides an insight into the society of the time. It is for this reason that letters are most commonly used for historical research. However, it is important to know that if you are looking a collection of letters belonging to someone, those letters were not written by that person. The letters contained in these types of collections are letters received by that person.

Letters received can provide us with an insight into the relationship between the two correspondents. If they are personal correspondences they are most informative for biographies or overall histories. It is not uncommon for a personal letter to act as a reflection upon a meeting between the receiver and composer, or on an event. Formal correspondences provide information about the financial, legal or social status of the receiver.

Therefore, the other use letters have in research is for legal papers. Letters as written records are admissible in court. They can be used as evidence. Written records are very important for legal cases, because they provide solid evidence or proof of an interaction. Phone calls, while there may be evidence of them taking place, lack the substance of conversation that is easily accessed in reading a written account of an interaction.