Primary and Secondary Sources

Research Steps 3

Primary vs. Secondary

For some research projects you may be required to use primary sources. How can you identify these?

Primary Sources

A primary source provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event, object, person, or work of art. Primary sources include historical and legal documents, eyewitness accounts, results of experiments, statistical data, pieces of creative writing, audio and video recordings, speeches, and art objects. Interviews, surveys, fieldwork, and Internet communications via email, blogs, listservs, and newsgroups are also primary sources. In the natural and social sciences, primary sources are often empirical studies—research where an experiment was performed or a direct observation was made. The results of empirical studies are typically found in scholarly articles or papers delivered at conferences.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources describe, discuss, interpret, comment upon, analyze, evaluate, summarize, and process primary sources. Secondary source materials can be articles in newspapers or popular magazines, book or movie reviews, or articles found in scholarly journals that discuss or evaluate someone else's original research.

Serials

Journals, magazines, and newspapers are serial publications that are published on an ongoing basis.

Many scholarly journals in the sciences and social sciences include primary source articles where the authors report on research they have undertaken. Consequently, these papers may use the first person ("We observed…"). These articles usually follow a standard format with sections like "Methods," "Results," and "Conclusion."

In the humanities, age is an important factor in determining whether an article is a primary or secondary source. A recently-published journal or newspaper article on the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case would be read as a secondary source, because the author is interpreting an historical event. An article on the case that was published in 1955 could be read as a primary source that reveals how writers were interpreting the decision immediately after it was handed down.

Serials may also include book reviews, editorials, and review articles. Review articles summarize research on a particular topic, but they do not present any new findings; therefore, they are considered secondary sources. Their bibliographies, however, can be used to identify primary sources.

Books

Most books are secondary sources, wherein scholars reference primary source materials and add their own analysis. Take Garry Wills' book about Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. If you are researching Abraham Lincoln, the book would be a secondary source because Wills is offering his views about Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address. Abraham Lincoln's published memoir or autobiography would be a primary source.

Secondary sources can also function as primary sources. If your assignment is to critique Garry Wills' thesis or write a review of Lincoln at Gettysburg, the book becomes a primary source, because you are commenting, evaluating, and discussing Wills' ideas.

Visual and Audio Materials

Visual materials such as maps, photographs, prints, graphic arts, and original art forms can provide insights into how people viewed and/or were viewed the world in which they existed.

Films, videos, TV programs, and digital recordings can be primary sources. Documentaries, feature films, and TV news broadcasts can provide insights into the fantasies, biases, political attitudes, and material culture of the times in which they were created. Radio broadcast recordings, oral histories, and the recorded music of a particular era can also serve as primary source material.

Archival Material

Manuscripts and archives are unpublished primary sources. Archival materials or manuscripts may include business and personal correspondence, diaries and journals, legal and financial documents, photographs, maps, architectural drawings, objects, oral histories, computer tapes, and video and audio cassettes.

Government Documents

Government documents provide evidence of activities, functions, and policies at all government levels. For research that relates to the workings of government, government documents are primary sources.

These documents include hearings and debates of legislative bodies; the official text of laws, regulations and treaties; records of government expenditures and finances; and statistical compilations of economic, demographic, and scientific data.

Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources contain information that has been compiled from primary and secondary sources. Tertiary sources include almanacs, chronologies, dictionaries and encyclopedias, directories, guidebooks, indexes, abstracts, manuals, and textbooks.

Examples

Primary Source Secondary Source
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address The Words That Remade America
The poem "Human Chain" by Seamus Heaney "His Nibs: Self-Reflexivity and the Significance of Translation in Seamus Heaney's Human Chain." by Michael Parker in Irish University Review (November 2012), pp. 327-350.
The table "Number of Offenses Known to the Police, Universities and Colleges" in the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, 2012 An article in the Ithacan entitled "Study Finds Eastern Colleges Often Conceal Campus Crime"
Mackey, S., Carroll, I., Emir, B., Murphy, T., Whalen, E., & Dumenci, L. (2012). Sensory pain qualities in neuropathic pain. The Journal Of Pain, 13(1), 58-63. doi:10.1016/j.jpain.2011.10.002
[a study published in a peer reviewed journal]
Vance, E. (2014). Where Does It Hurt?. Discover, 35(4), 28-30.
[an article in a magazine that includes quotes from Sean Mackey, author of the peer reviewed article on pain]
Cynthia Scheibe's doctoral dissertation on the developmental differences in children's reasoning about Santa Claus An article in Parents Magazine discussing experts' views on the harm of lying to children about Santa Claus
The text of Barack Obama's keynote address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, found in The New York Times A 2004 editorial in The New York Times entitled "Everybody Loves Obama"

When in Doubt…

If you're not sure if a given source is primary or secondary for the purposes of your research project, ask your instructor. There are many gray areas and your instructor's interpretation may not entirely match the Library's.