For some research projects you may be required to use primary sources. How can you identify these? Explore this research guide to learn how to distinguish between a primary source and a secondary source.
(Photographs are examples of primary sources)
A primary source provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event, object, person, or work of art. Primary sources include historical and legal documents, eyewitness accounts, autobiographies, oral histories, results of experiments, statistical data, pieces of creative writing, audio and video recordings, photographs, speeches, and art objects. Interviews, surveys, fieldwork, and Internet communications via email, blogs, listservs, and newsgroups are also primary sources. In the natural and social sciences, primary sources are often empirical studies—research where an experiment was performed or a direct observation was made. The results of empirical studies are typically found in scholarly articles or papers delivered at conferences.
Secondary sources describe, discuss, interpret, comment upon, analyze, evaluate, summarize, and process primary sources. Secondary source materials can be articles in newspapers or popular magazines, book or movie reviews, or articles found in scholarly journals that discuss or evaluate someone else's original research.
Journals, magazines, and newspapers are serial publications that are published on an ongoing basis.
Many scholarly journals in the sciences and social sciences include primary source articles where the authors report on research they have undertaken. Consequently, these papers may use the first person ("We observed…"). These articles usually follow a standard format with sections like "Methods," "Results," and "Conclusion."
In the humanities, age is an important factor in determining whether an article is a primary or secondary source. A recently-published journal or newspaper article on the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case would be read as a secondary source, because the author is interpreting an historical event. An article on the case that was published in 1955 could be read as a primary source that reveals how writers were interpreting the decision immediately after it was handed down.
Serials may also include book reviews, editorials, and review articles. Review articles summarize research on a particular topic, but they do not present any new findings; therefore, they are considered secondary sources. Their bibliographies, however, can be used to identify primary sources.
Visual and Audio Material
Manuscripts and archives are primary sources, including business and personal correspondence, diaries and journals, legal and financial documents, photographs, maps, architectural drawings, objects, oral histories, computer tapes, and video and audio cassettes. Some archival materials are published and available in print or online.
Tertiary sources contain information that has been compiled from primary and secondary sources. Tertiary sources include almanacs, chronologies, dictionaries and encyclopedias, directories, guidebooks, indexes, abstracts, manuals, and textbooks.