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Library Research Guides

Primary Sources: Primary Sources

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

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Primary and Secondary Sources Overview

Primary and Secondary Research Sources

When conducting research it is important to be able to distinguish between primary and secondary sources. The difference is basically, how far the creator or author of the work is removed from an actual event or physical object. If the author is reporting first hand impressions (eye witness account) or recording impressions immediately after an event, this would be considered a primary source. Conveying the experiences and opinions of others is considered second hand information. This would be a secondary source.

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original documents are often diaries, letters, memoirs, journals, speeches, manuscripts, interviews and other such unpublished works.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
  • paintings
  • an autobiography
  • letters
  • a film
  • a television show
  • a performance
  • posters
  • a sculpture
  • accounts of a historical event by firsthand observers
  • official memoranda
  • short stories
  • plays
  • poems
  • photographs
  • speeches
  • court cases
  • interviews
  • journal articles (original research articles)

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

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