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Primary Sources: Intro to Primary Sources

Overview of primary source research

What is a PRIMARY source?

"Primary sources are materials in a variety of formats, created at the time under study, that serve as original evidence documenting a time period, event, people, idea, or work." -- Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy

A variety of original materials:

  • Historical and legal documents
  • Eyewitness accounts
  • Results of an experiment
  • Statistical data
  • Pieces of creative writing such as fiction or poems
  • Art objects such as paintings, photographs, or statues

A variety of formats, both physical or digital:

  • printed: books, pamphlets, maps, lab notes, conference papers, patents, dissertations, original research studies
  • manuscripts/archival: diaries, ledgers, yearbooks
  • audio/visual: recordings, videos, films, photographs, interviews
  • artifacts: clothes, personal belongings
  • 'born'-digital: emails, digital photos, twitter threads

Primary sources are original materials that have not been filtered through interpretation or evaluation by a second party.


What is a SECONDARY source?

Secondary Sources are one step removed from primary sources, though they often quote or otherwise use primary sources. They can cover the same topic, but add some interpretation and analysis. Secondary sources can include:

  • Books about a topic.
  • Analysis or interpretation of data.
  • Scholarly articles about a topic, authored by people not directly involved with the original material.
  • Documentaries (but they may include photos, videos, or artifacts that can be considered primary sources).

When is a PRIMARY source a SECONDARY source?

Adding a layer of confusion: 

Whether something is a primary or secondary source will often depend upon the topic and its use.

A biology textbook would be considered a secondary source in the field of biology, since it describes and interprets the science but makes no original contribution to it.


If the topic is "science education and the history of textbooks", textbooks could be used as primary sources to analyze how they have changed over time.