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.
First, read the source!! Then ask yourself:
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?
Primary sources may be published or unpublished, or may not even be written material. Common primary sources include:
Common secondary sources might include:
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).
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.
In the Humanities:
|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:
|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
1 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.