Ornamental Separator

Bringing Sources to Life

A lot goes into making sure that every day at Colonial Williamsburg accurately represents the 18th century. How do we do it? If you guessed research, you would be correct. Research is essential to the success of any museum. Sharing information on any subject without the necessary research is a disservice to the public. But how do we know what we know? From the original jars in the Apothecary shop to the museum theatre program in the Hennage Auditorium, Colonial Williamsburg staff members have scoured the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library shelves or used previously conducted research from other institutions and scholars to ensure we present an accurate view of the past grounded in solid evidence.

All research begins with a question and that carefully crafted question will guide the work. Those questions are answered and supported by using primary and secondary sources.

Primary Sources

What Is a Primary Source?

  • Created at or near the time of the subject you are researching.
  • Created by someone who experienced or witnessed what you are researching.

Why and How Should You Use Primary Sources?

  • Primary sources are as close as we can get to an event or era in the past.
  • Primary sources require an informed analysis of an event or era.
  • Sets of primary sources from different individuals help us understand the past from multiple perspectives.

Secondary Sources

What Is a Secondary Source?

  • Not created by someone who witnessed or experienced what you are researching.
  • In history, these are usually scholarly books or articles, which interpret or analyze primary sources.

Why and How Should You Use Secondary Sources?

  • Secondary sources provide other people’s analysis on the subject.
  • Secondary sources help us avoid “reinventing the wheel.”
  • Bibliographies in secondary sources will reference primary sources, some of which we may not have otherwise known about.

Browse Our Sources

The John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, the research center of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, advances knowledge of colonial British America, the American Revolution, the early United States, American decorative arts and folk art, and the restoration and continuing story of Colonial Williamsburg. The library’s staff and collections support ongoing research that informs the creation of engaging and inspiring educational experiences in the Historic Area, at the Art Museums, and in Digital Learning Programs.

Discovering Sources

From archaeology to documentary analysis, research underpins the entire Colonial Williamsburg experience. Use the links below to discover our latest findings and learn how they shape the Historic Area and all our programs.

Sources in Action

Research is our backbone; education is our mission. Dive into how we know what we know about 18th-century Williamsburg and join us in discovering what we are yet to uncover.

Onsite Opportunities

Participate in the process of discovery through our special educational programs. Engage with primary and secondary sources, field experts, and a community of learning at Colonial Williamsburg.

Learn More


Thank you to our staff historians for providing the “What is a source?” text — Hellier, Cathy et al. Thinking Like a Historian. 2021. PowerPoint Presentation.