SI: Primary versus Secondary Sources

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This tutorial will define the main differences between primary sources and secondary sources. You may be required by your professor to include primary and/or secondary research in your assignment, so it is important to identify these source types.

Primary sources are original works that put forth new information for the first time. They can include original qualitative or quantitative research findings, new creative works, or firsthand accounts of an event or era (usually contemporary with the information being reported on). 

Some general examples of primary sources are:

  • Speeches
  • Diary entries
  • Letters
  • Novels
  • Poems
  • Scholarly journal articles which present original research findings
  • Photographs
  • Newspaper articles (contemporary to the time period)
  • Original documents (such as birth certificates and marriage records)
  • Artwork (original)
  • Reports on new data findings
To learn more about primary sources for American History, please visit this guide.

Secondary sources are interpretations, analyses, or commentary on a primary source(s). They can include evaluations of information and secondhand accounts of events or eras.

Some general examples of secondary sources are:

  • Monographs
  • Scholarly journal articles which interpret primary resources
  • Book or art reviews
  • Newspaper articles that provide commentary
  • Interpretive essays

Here are some discipline-specific examples of primary and secondary sources (click to enlarge):

 Source Examples

It is important to note that whether a source is primary or secondary relies on the context of the research. The form of a source does not automatically determine its categorization.

For example, books and articles are not automatically secondary sources. The biographical book written by James Boswell detailing the life of Samuel Johnson is considered a secondary source when the research subject is Samuel Johnson. However, if the topic of research is the works of James Boswell, then this same source becomes a primary source.

Similarly, a current newspaper article would be considered a primary source, but a newspaper article from 1943 discussing WWII is a primary source within the context of WWII research.

Congratulations! You have completed this short tutorial on primary versus secondary sources. If you have any further questions, please feel free to speak with a librarian.