Skip to main content

Primary vs. Secondary Sources: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

This guide gives a short overview of the difference between primary and secondary sources.

Primary Sources

Primary sources are materials that are eyewitness accounts or as close to the original source as possible.

Qualitative data:

  • What people say.
    They are usually Speeches, Interviews and Conversations, and they may be captured in Videos, Audio Recordings, or transcribed into text.
  • What people write. 
    These include Autobiographies, Memoirs, Personal Journals and Diaries, Letters, Emails, Blogs, Twitter Feeds, etc.
  • Images and Videos.
  • Maps.
  • Government Documents--U.S. rest of world.
  • Laws, Court Cases and Decisions, Treaties.
  • Newspapers.

Quantitative data:

Please note that a book is simply a format.  You can find both primary and secondary sources published in book form.

 

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are interpretations and analyses based on primary sources.

For example, an autobiography is a primary source while a biography is a secondary source.

Typical secondary sources include:

  • Scholarly Journal Articles.  Use these and books exclusively for writing Literature Reviews.
  • Magazines.
  • Reports.
  • Encyclopedias.
  • Handbooks.
  • Dictionaries.
  • Documentaries.
  • Newspapers.

Please note that a book is simply a format.  You can find primary and secondary sources published in book form.

When Secondary Becomes Primary

Often secondary and primary sources are relative concepts.  Typical secondary sources may be primary sources depending on the research topic.

  1. Intellectual history topics.
    For example, although scholarly journal articles are usually considered secondary sources, if one's topic is the history of human rights, then journal articles on human rights will be primary sources in this instance.  Similarly, research on the thinking of a scholar will include her published journal articles as primary sources.

  2. Historical topics.
    Magazine articles are secondary sources, but for someone researching the view of judicial punishment in the 1920s, magazines from that time period are primary sources.  Indeed, any older publication, such as those prior to the 20th century, is very often automatically considered a primary source.

  3. Newspapers may be either primary or secondary.
    Most articles in newspapers are secondary, but reporters may be considered as witnesses to an event.  Any topic on the media coverage of an event or phenomenon would treat newspapers as a primary source.  There are so many articles and types of articles in newspapers that they can often be considered both primary and secondary.