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Using and Accessing Primary Sources

Secondary sources

Secondary sources are works that are not based on direct observation of or evidence directly associated with the subject. They rely on other sources of information. They may also be works that comment on another work, such as a review, criticism, or commentary.

In refining a research topic, we often begin with secondary sources. They help to identify gaps or conflicts in the existing scholarly literature that might prove to be promising topics.

  • Created by someone who was either not present when the event occurred or was removed from it in time
  • Use for overview information, to familiarize yourself with a topic, and compare that topic with other events in history
  • Examples of secondary sources include:
    • Text books, encyclopedias, and historical dictionaries
    • Many academic (scholarly) articles
    • Some news articles (see "Primary sources" below for more on this)

Primary sources

Primary (historical) sources are documents, images, objects, or other records that provide firsthand accounts or direct evidence about a historical topic or event. These records were created at the time of an event or were later recalled by an eyewitness; or they were created by someone with a direct connection to the topic.

Primary sources in the sciences can be different from primary sources in the humanities and social sciences. In the sciences, the term "primary sources" often applies to original research or the first (i.e., primary) article to report on new research or data. However, many archives do not retain journal articles as they are readily available from libraries and other digital sources. Review this guide from Michigan State University for more on the topic.

Primary sources emphasize the lack of voices and interpretations between the thing or events being studied and reports of those things or events. There is a belief that firsthand accounts are more accurate, but that is not always true.

Primary sources can be digital. Many archives digitize some of their holdings – both for preservation and for access. You don't have to physically handle sources to use them, though that is part of the fun.

Primary sources:

  • Come from individuals or groups who took part in or witnessed an event and documented it
  • Include records created by people and organizations in the course of living their lives or conducting business
  • Some examples include:
    • Letters, emails, telegrams, and other types of communication (this may also include records like websites and social media posts)
    • Speeches, memoirs, and diaries
    • Research data, primary research articles
    • Government, church, and business records
    • Oral histories
    • Photographs, motion pictures, and videos
    • Maps and land records
    • Blueprints
    • Newspaper articles from the time of the event (usually considered primary sources, although the reporter may have gathered the story from witnesses rather than from being an eyewitness)
    • Artifacts and specimens may also be primary evidence if they are the focus of study

For more, check out this guide to primary sources from Princeton University.

Primary vs. Secondary