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Primary Sources: About Primary Sources

Tips on how to identify, access, and use primary source materials.

Different Levels of Sources

According to the Princeton Library:

  • A primary source is "a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event."
  • "Secondary sources are theoretical or critical texts which are part of the professional wisdom on or related to your primary object of study."

Primary vs. Secondary Sources




An original, "firsthand" or "eyewitness" account offering an inside view. "Secondhand" information.
Contains new information (new at the time it was created, that is) that has not been interpreted, evaluated, paraphrased, or condensed. Contains information that has been digested, analyzed, reworded, or interpreted and usually combines information taken from primary sources.
Usually created during (or very close to) the time of the events on which they report. Often written well after the events reported on; may put past information in its historical context.
Author typically provides direct impressions of events on which they are reporting. Author typically reports on the impressions and experiences of other people.

Types of Secondary Sources

  • most non-fiction books, including textbooks, history books, and reference books like encyclopedias
  • magazine and journal articles that only review or interpret previous research or events.

By the way...

  • Scholars conduct new research based, in part, on the findings of prior research. For this reason, scholarly journal articles usually have secondary information (summarizing previous research) and primary information (the new information the scholar found by doing new research).

Examples of Primary Sources

  • advertisements
  • artifacts (clothing, currency, furniture, jewelry, musical instruments, pottery, textiles, weapons, etc.)
  • autobiographies
  • buildings/architectural landmarks
  • census records
  • charters
  • charts/graphs
  • correspondence
  • diaries/journals
  • dissertations
  • documentary film/video
  • drawings/cartoons
  • edicts
  • fiction/novels
  • government documents (official text of laws, investigative reports, legislative hearings, etc.)
  • immigration records
  • inscriptions
  • interviews
  • ledgers/financial documents
  • legal documents/court records
  • letters
  • maps
  • manuscripts
  • memoirs
  • music scores
  • news film footage
  • newspaper reports (firsthand)
  • official records
  • oral histories
  • paintings
  • pamphlets
  • personal narratives
  • photographs
  • plays
  • poetry
  • religious texts
  • research data
  • sheet music
  • shipsʻ logs
  • sound recordings (music or spoken word)
  • speeches
  • tablets
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