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Library Research Guides

Primary Sources: Source Types

This guide defines primary and secondary sources and suggests resources for primary documents.

Source Types

When conducting research, it is important to know what primary and secondary sources are and to be able to distinguish between them. The difference between them depends on how far the creator or author of the work is removed from an actual event or physical object. If the author is recording personal impressions immediately after an event or an original idea, they are creating a primary source. In contrast, if the author is writing about experiences and opinions reported by others, they have written a secondary source. Often, you will find a source that could be considered both a primary and secondary source; for example, a scientific work like Darwin's The Origin of Species includes information reported by others and original ideas. 

Primary Sources

These are contemporary accounts of an event, written by someone who experienced or witnessed the event in question. These original documents are often diaries, letters, memoirs, journals, speeches, manuscripts, interviews and other such unpublished works. They may also include published pieces such as newspaper or magazine articles (as long as they are written soon after the fact and not as historical accounts), photographs, audio or video recordings, research reports in the natural or social sciences, or original literary or theatrical works. Examples of primary sources are:

  • novels
  • firsthand account
  • original research
  • paintings
  • official memoranda
  • sculpture
  • autobiography
  • short stories
  • interviews
  • letters
  • plays
  • court cases
  • film
  • poems
  • posters
  • television
  • photographs
  • performance

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

This video from Hartness Library goes into further detail about the difference between a primary and secondary source. 

What are Primary Sources?

The following video from the University of Georgia Library explains what a primary source is and how it differs from a secondary source. 

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are one or more steps removed from the event or phenomenon under review. Secondary source materials interpret, assign values to, conjecture upon, and draw conclusions about the events reported in primary sources. These are usually in the form of published works such as journal articles or books, but may include radio or television documentaries, or conference proceedings. Examples of secondary sources are:

  • journal articles (review articles)
  • books
  • encyclopedias
  • dictionaries
  • reviews
  • critical essays