Primary and Secondary Sources

A primary source is an account of an event by a participant or eyewitness at the time. While often textual, primary sources may take other forms in various areas of research. Works of art, scientific or sociological data, archeological artifacts, and official government proceedings also constitute primary sources.

Examples of primary sources:

Diaries, letters, memoirs, autobiographies
Interviews, speeches, oral histories, personal narratives
Scientific data and reports
Scholarly journal articles (depends on discipline)
Statistical and survey data
Works of art, photographs, music, or literature
Archeological artifacts
Legal cases, hearings, laws
Official government documents and reports
Minutes of organization meetings
Unpublished manuscripts
Period newspaper and magazine articles

A secondary source interprets, discusses or analyzes. Secondary sources are usually texts. An author of a secondary source may be distant in time or geography from the primary source analyzed. Or a secondary source may be based on other secondary sources.

Examples of secondary sources:

Scholarly journal articles (depends on discipline)
Magazine articles
Encyclopedia entries

Secondary sources are located by a key word search in one of the subject databases, such as Historical Abstracts, or by a key word or subject search in the Library Catalog. Sometimes secondary sources help in finding primary sources, since primary sources may be listed in the article’s footnotes or bibliography.

For finding primary sources, it is usually necessary to first gain some background about the research subject to know what kind of primary source is appropriate. Are statistics needed or a congressional hearing or a memoir? Then the appropriate database or catalog can be accessed. Please consult a reference librarian with any questions about working with primary and secondary sources.