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Understand the Difference: Primary versus Secondary Sources

Have you ever been assigned to write a research paper in which you are expected to utilize a certain number of primary sources and a certain number of secondary sources? Perhaps this seemed like a daunting task because you weren’t sure as to what the difference between primary and secondary sources was. This handout has been designed to help students like you to discern the difference between primary and secondary sources.

What are primary sources?

Primary sources are original works. They can be first hand accounts, created by participants or observers (eyewitnesses) to events, or original works of art (written and visual). They may have been created at the time of the event or at a later date.

Many different types of primary sources exist. They may include written documents (published or unpublished), oral histories or traditions, and visual artifacts. These categories can overlap as well. Let’s consider a few examples.



Written Documents Federal and state laws; Federal, state, or local government documents, including birth, marriage, and death records, court records, census records, etc; Autobiographical works, including books and memoirs; Personal papers, including diaries and correspondence; Creative works, including fiction; Magazine, newspaper, or journal articles written during the time period that you’re writing about; Accounts of research, including research diaries, reports, and articles.
Oral Histories or Traditions Interviews, speeches, and personal narratives. Often these are sound/audio or video recordings.
Visual Artifacts Paintings, films, photographs, maps, coins, stamps, tombstones, or other creative media.

Some primary sources are published documents that were originally published for wide audiences (e.g., government reports and pamphlets). Other primary sources are unpublished and were never intended to be published (e.g., diaries and correspondence). Likewise, primary documents may be written by either public figures or ordinary people.

You may find primary sources in their original format, but they may be reproduced in another format. They also may be collected in some way, such as in book format (e.g., a collection of letters), on the Internet, or in a microfilm collection.

It’s worth noting that primary sources (just like secondary sources) can be reliable or unreliable and should be critically evaluated. See the Library of Congress’s webpage on Analyzing Primary Sources for a good discussion on information about the “time and place rule” and questions for analyzing primary sources:

What are secondary sources?

Secondary sources are works (books, articles, etc.) that interpret, explain, or analyze the “original” document, event, or work.

Examples of secondary sources may include scholarly or popular books and newspaper, magazine, or journal articles. Some secondary sources include quotes from primary sources (e.g., textbooks). Secondary sources can be scholarly or non-scholarly. (See our handout, titled “Understand the Difference: Scholarly versus Non-scholarly Sources” for more information.)

Finally, it’s also worth noting that these categories (primary versus secondary) are not absolute. A source may be a secondary source in one case and a primary source in another. For example, Stephen Spender’s The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics, People, 1930’s-1970’s is a secondary source because it discusses historical events and primary works by Yeats, D.H. Lawrence, etc. But, if you’re writing a paper about Stephen Spender’s writing style as a critic, this source could be a primary source because it serves as an original source of Stephen Spender’s style.

Recommended Resources

Purdue Online Writing Lab
“Research and Citation Resources”

Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute
“From Dusty to Digital: Using Primary Sources” by Gail Hall