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Primary Source Research: Definitions -What is a primary source?

How to do Primary Source Research

Primary Sources

What are Primary Sources?

There are many types of primary sources. Definitions vary by academic discipline.

Common elements to all types of primary sources are

  • original
  • direct
  • unaltered

Primary source materials have not been edited, evaluated, analyzed, combined, commented on, or changed by a person other than the creator.

Is a book a primary source?

The format, such as a book, newspaper, or film, does not determine whether the item is a primary source. Content and context are the determining factors.

What about translations?

Official or authorized translations are generally considered primary.  Unofficial translations are usually not considered primary because the translator may have biases or may not be fully fluent in the subject matter.  Translations generated by software, such as Google Translate, are never, ever, considered primary sources.

What are the types of Primary Sources?

“I was there” – Personal Accounts

Among the most frequently used primary sources are writings or interviews that come directly from the people who were present when the event being studied occurred. This material, created by individuals who directly experienced or were involved in the subject under investigation, is considered primary. The “I was there” type of primary source is referred in many different terms:

  • Personal recollection
  • Firsthand account
  • Eyewitness report
  • Contemporary account
  • Direct Personal recollection
  • Personal observation
  • Autobiography
  • Saw with ‘own eyes’


In additional to personal accounts, documents, such as court records, laws, hearings, treaties, death certificates, maps, photographs, that originate from or were created at the time of the event being studied are also primary sources. In some cases, documents created shortly after the event can also be primary.

Original Creations

Original creations by a person, such as letters, diaries, an autobiography, poem, musical score, work of art, screenplays, military field notes, a scientist’s lab notebooks, or an anthropologist’s diaries are primary.

Raw Data

Numerical data is a primary source. Data from public opinion polls may be primary. Once the raw data is interpreted or combined with other data it may no longer be primary.


Tools, clothing, buildings, films, TV shows, or tangible objects from a particular period can be a primary source.

Why are primary sources needed in research?

Original materials provide valuable insights into the culture, perspectives, actions, and conditions, making them essential for analysis and understanding of a particular time period, event or subject.

What are some examples of primary sources?

  • Diaries
  • Letters
  • Speeches
  • Autobiographies
  • Scientists' lab notebooks
  • Photographs
  • Official records (government reports, transcripts, court records, death certificates, etc.)
  • Contemporary news reports (newspapers, telecasts, radio addresses, etc.)
  • Eye-witness accounts
  • Maps
  • Charts
  • Military Field Notes
  • Ships' logs
  • Diagrams
  • Music (scores, sheet music, recordings, etc.)
  • Interviews
  • Images (photographs, paintings, films etc.)
  • Raw data
  • Polls & Public Opinion Data
  • Laws, statutes, hearings

What is a Secondary Source?

A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may include images of or quotes from primary sources. Some types of secondary sources include: journal/magazine articles, textbooks, commentaries, and encyclopedias.

In the strictest sense, translations are secondary sources unless the translation is provided by the author or issuing agency.  Consult your professor if you have questions about a source.

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. (but can also be primary)
  • Newspapers.

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

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Kathryn Ray

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Can a Secondary Source become a Primary Source? What about newspapers?

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Translations
    In the strictest sense, translations are secondary sources unless the translation is provided by the author or issuing agency.  Consult your professor if you have questions about a source.

-Clement Ho