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A Guide to Understanding Primary Sources

Video: Primary vs Secondary Sources

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources convey first-hand experience of the event or time period you’re studying.

Secondary sources convey the experiences of others, or “second-hand” information; they often synthesize a collection of primary sources.


There's also a third group called tertiary sources, which are like "third-hand" information; they usually synthesize a collection of secondary sources.

PRIMARY Sources:

  • First-hand accounts by people who experienced event.
  • A person's account of own feelings, actions, or experiences.
  • Object or document that comes directly from person, place, or event being researched.


  • Second-hand accounts by people who did not experience event.
  • One person's account of someone else's feelings, actions, or experiences.
  • Object or document that originates much later than person, place, or event being researched.
  • Contains INTERPRETATIONS, analysis, synthesis.

Content Versus Format:

  • Is a newspaper always primary, and is a book always secondary? NO.
  • "Primary" and "secondary" relate to the CONTENT, not the format.
  • Primary sources OFTEN appear in document types such as letters and newspapers, but a source doesn't have to be primary just because of its format. The same is true of sources on paper versus sources on the Internet, and sources which are duplicated as they appear (by scanning or photographing) versus sources which are transcribed (retyped word for word in plain text) -- it's the content that counts.

It's All About CONTEXT:

  • There is nothing inherent in a document or object that automatically makes it always be "primary" or "secondary."
  • YOUR RESEARCH QUESTION determines whether the source is primary or secondary for YOUR research.
  • The same document could be a primary source for one paper and a secondary source for another paper.
  • Example: 1975 biography about Abraham Lincoln would probably be a...
    -- Secondary source if you are studying Lincoln’s life.
    -- Primary source if you are studying how people wrote historical biographies in the 1970s.

How to Evaluate a Source

First, read the source!! Then ask yourself:

    1. What kind of document/object is this?
    2. Who created it? What is his role/occupation?
    3. When was it written/created? (And when was the event I am researching?)
    4. What information does this source convey?

Try to fill in this sentence: "This is a _____ written by ____, who is ____. It was written in ____ and it contains _____."

Then read that sentence aloud and ask yourself: does that add up to Primary or Secondary?

Common Examples

Primary sources may be published or unpublished, or may not even be written material. Common primary sources include:

  • Records of a government, business, or organization
  • Letters, diaries, memoirs, interviews, speeches
  • Sketches and other art, creative writing and poetry
  • Videotapes, sound recordings, maps, photos
  • Accounts in newspapers and magazines around the time of the event or topic
  • Artifacts and relics, like clothing, buildings, and coins

Common secondary sources might include:

  • Your school textbooks
  • Modern books and articles (scholarly or popular) that analyze or reflect on a historical event or time period

Additionally, tertiary sources are those that synthesize secondary sources (so they are even further removed from the first-hand experiences that are documented in primary sources).

  • Many encyclopedias would qualify as tertiary; however, some encyclopedias may include an appendix or volume of primary documents, in which case those specific contents would be primary, even though the actual entries in the encyclopedia are tertiary.

Not Just Writing

It's important to keep in mind that the idea of "primary sources" doesn't just mean "writing." A photograph can be a primary source. A physical object (anything from an architectural structure to a piece of jewelry to a milk bottle) can also be a primary source.

In fact, in the article "How Objects Speak," while discussing a pair of 17th century scholars who researched Egyptian gnostic gems, author Peter Miller observes:

This was not a subject nor an inquiry that pre-existed them: It was from objects that the scholars derived their questions, and they followed them wherever they led, conquering difficult sources of different kinds along the way.

So keep in mind that physical objects, as preserved pieces of real history, can often be the items which inspire your historical questions in the first place, spurring your research process to begin.

Humanities Vs. Sciences

In the Humanities:

Primary Source Vs. Secondary Source
Based on first-hand, personal experience   Based on second-hand information
Author experienced or witnessed event   Author did NOT witness event
Usually written at same time or shortly after the event occurred   Usually written somewhat later or much later after the event occurred
(memoirs can be written much later, but by a first-hand participant, so still a primary source)
Generally does not include compilation and analysis of other sources—but see note above on context   Interprets primary source(s), often many together; draws conclusions or criticizes--see note above on context.


In the Sciences:

Primary Source Vs. Secondary Source
Original scientific research; experiment or study conducted by author1   Compilation, discussion, analysis, or criticism of scientific research by others1
Factual rather than interpretive   Analyzes and interprets


In natural and social sciences, primary source generally refers to original research, but note the similarity: scientists describe their first-hand experience with an experiment or study.


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