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Primary Sources: Definition of Primary Sources

Primary Sources

Primary Sources

Primary sources are the raw materials of historical research - they are the documents or artifacts closest to the topic of investigation. Often they are created during the time period which is being studied (correspondence, diaries, newspapers, government documents, art) but they can also be produced later by eyewitnesses or participants (memoirs, oral histories). You may find primary sources in their original format (usually in an archive) or reproduced in a variety of ways: books, microfilm, digital, etc.
Note: The definition of a primary source may vary depending upon the discipline or context.

Examples include:

  • Artifacts (e.g. coins, plant specimens, fossils, furniture, tools, clothing, all from the time under study)
  • Audio recordings (e.g. radio programs, oral histories)
  • Diaries
  • Internet communications on email, listservs
  • Interviews (e.g., oral histories, telephone, e-mail)
  • Journal articles published in peer-reviewed publications
  • Letters
  • Newspaper articles written at the time
  • Original Documents (i.e. birth certificate, will, marriage license, trial transcript)
  • Patents
  • Photographs
  • Proceedings of Meetings, conferences and symposia
  • Records of organizations, government agencies (e.g. annual report, treaty, constitution, government document)
  • Speeches
  • Survey Research (e.g., market surveys, public opinion polls)
  • Video recordings (e.g. television programs)
  • Works of art, architecture, literature, and music (e.g., paintings, sculptures, musical scores, buildings, novels, poems)
  • Websites

How to Read and Write Like a Historian

Here are some tutorials, created by librarians and historians, that offer tips on reading and writing history.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources offer an analysis or a restatement of primary sources. They often attempt to describe or explain primary sources. Some secondary sources not only analyze primary sources, but also use them to argue a contention or persuade the reader to hold a certain opinion.  Secondary sources are not evidence, but rather commentary on and discussion of evidence.
Note: The definition of a secondary source may vary depending upon the discipline or context.

Examples include:

  • Bibliographies (also considered tertiary)
  • Biographical works
  • Commentaries, criticisms
  • Dictionaries, Encyclopedias (also considered tertiary)
  • Histories
  • Journal articles (depending on the disciple can be primary)
  • Magazine and newspaper articles (this distinction varies by discipline)
  • Monographs, other than fiction and autobiography
  • Textbooks (also considered tertiary)
  • Web site (also considered primary)

 

Subject Guide

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Mary Jo Fairchild
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Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources consist of information which is a distillation and collection of primary and secondary sources.

Examples include:

  • Almanacs
  • Bibliographies (also considered secondary)
  • Chronologies
  • Dictionaries and Encyclopedias (also considered secondary)
  • Directories
  • Fact books
  • Guidebooks
  • Indexes, abstracts, bibliographies used to locate primary and secondary sources
  • Manuals
  • Textbooks (also considered secondary)

Primary vs. Secondary Sources