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Understand the Difference: Primary versus Secondary Sources

You’ve been asked to write a research paper, and your instructor said that you must include both primary and secondary sources within your paper. “What’s the difference?” you wonder. In this handout, we’ll consider the differences 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 They may include written documents (published or unpublished), oral histories or traditions, and visual artifacts.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.

Category

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Other primary sources are unpublished and were never intended to be published (e.g., diaries and correspondence).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 public figures or by 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. It’s available at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/ndlpedu/lessons/psources/analyze.html.)

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.

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

The Library of Congress
The Learning Page: The Historian’s Sources
http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/ndlpedu/lessons/psources/pshome.html

Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute
From Dusty to Digital: Using Primary Sources by Gail Hall
http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1999/7/99.07.01.x.html