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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  • Unpublished manuscripts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:

  • Books
  • Scholarly journal articles (depends on discipline)
  • Magazine articles
  • Encyclopedia entries
  • Reviews

Secondary sources can be located by a keyword search in one of the subject databases, such as Historical Abstracts, or by a search in Compass. Sometimes secondary sources help in finding primary sources, since primary sources may be listed in an 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? With this answer, the appropriate database or catalog can be accessed. Please consult a research librarian if you have any questions about working with primary and secondary sources.