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

How to do Primary Source Research

Primary Sources

What is a Primary Source?

A primary source is an eyewitness account of an event or data obtained through original statistical or scientific research . 

What are some examples of primary sources?

• Diaries

• Letters

• Speeches

• Autobiographies

• Photographs

• Official records (government reports, transcripts, court records, death certificates, etc.)

• Contemporary news reports (newspapers, telecasts, radio addresses, etc.)

• Eye-witness accounts

• Maps

• Charts

• Diagrams

• Music (scores, sheet music, recordings, etc.)

• Interviews

• Images (photographs, paintings, films etc.)

• Statistics

• 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 pictures of or quotes from primary sources in them. 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.
  • Newspapers.

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

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