Primary Sources

Newspapers, Archival Documents, Personal Papers, Census Data

What is a Primary Source?

Examples of Primary Sources

Definition of Primary Sources:  

A primary source is a piece of evidence created during the time you are studying. These sources offer an eye-witness view of a particular event. They can be any type of format, as long as you as the researcher are looking for the source's context: Who made this, and what was their perspective? What other sources describe the same events? Whose perspective isn't represented, and where can you find it? What was the world like when this thing was made? With primary sources, you will ask a lot of questions!

Some common types of records used as primary sources include:

  • Original Documents, including eyewitness accounts or the first record of events such as diaries, speeches, letters, manuscripts, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, or official records
  • Creative Works such as literature, music, art, film, etc.
  • Relics or Artifacts such as pottery, furniture, clothing, and buildings
  • Data from original research whether statistical or scientific

Remember: you have to find context for your primary sources.

What is a Secondary Source?

Definition of a secondary source:

A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them. Some common types of secondary sources include:

  • A journal/magazine article which interprets or reviews previous findings 
  • A history textbook 
  • A book about the effects of WWI 
  • Biographies
  • Encyclopedia articles

Remember: a secondary source is making an argument based on research from other primary and secondary sources.

Primary Sources by Discipline

Different academic disciplines have different definitions of what constitutes a primary source:

In the Humanities (history, literature, religion), primary sources focus on original documents or accounts contemporary to a specific event or an individual’s life. Terms such as “eyewitness” or “firsthand” are also commonly used to describe these sources. Autobiographical accounts written at a later date are also considered primary sources. Letters, diaries, journal entries, public records as well as contemporaneous newspapers articles offer solid examples of this type of primary source. Fictional works such as short stories or novels written during that specific time period constitute primary documents, too.

In the Arts (art, dance, music, theatre), primary sources are as diverse as the various disciplines in the category. They may include paintings, sculpture, prints, performances, video or audio recordings, scripts, or musical scores.

Social Sciences (psychology, sociology, education) place a heavy emphasis on unanalyzed data sets as primary sources. Numerical data sets such as census figures, opinion polls, surveys or interview transcripts constitute this type of raw, uninterpreted data. A researcher’s field notes are also primary sources in the social sciences.

In the Sciences (biology, ecology, chemistry), primary source documents focus on original research, ideas, or findings published in academic journals. These articles mark the first publication of such research; and they detail the researcher’s methodology and results. Plant or mineral samples and other artifacts are primary sources as well.

In STEM fields, primary sources may include papers or proceedings from scientific conferences; journal articles sharing original research, technical reports, patents, lab notes, and researcher correspondence or diaries.

Portions borrowed from Berea College Hutchins Library

Is it a primary source?

Are you using a primary source?

It depends on the questions you're asking!

Primary Resources Presentation Slides

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Differentiating Primary and Secondary Sources in Each Discipline

While primary sources offer a firsthand account, secondary sources are written after the fact. Secondary sources analyze, interpret, explain, or analyze a primary source, event or individual. These resources represent a second publication cycle, tasked with presenting an argument or to persuade the reader.

Discipline Primary Source Secondary Source
Archaeology farming tools treatise on innovative analysis of neolithic artifacts
Art sketch book conference proceedings on French Impressionists
History Emancipation Proclamation (1863) book on the anti-slavery struggle
Journalism interview biography of publisher Katherine Myer Graham
Law legislative hearing law review article on anti-terrorism legislation
Literature novel literary criticism on The Name of the Rose
Music score of an opera biography of composer Georges Bizet
Political Science public opinion poll newspaper article on campaign finance reform
Rhetoric speech editorial comment on Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech
Sociology voter registry Ph.D. dissertation on Hispanic voting patterns

Borrowed from Indiana University Bloomington Libraries