Primary vs. Secondary Sources

According to the Library of Congress, "Primary sources are the raw materials of history — original documents and objects which were created at the time under study. They are different from secondary sources, accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience.”

Primary sources provides direct, firsthand evidence about an event, object, or person. They are not interpretative beyond that original perspective. Primary sources include everything from diaries, letters, manuscripts, audio and video recordings, speeches, artwork, interview, surveys, emails, scientific research results, census records, etc. 

Secondary sources are secondhand accounts or interpretations of an event, object, or person. They describe, interpret, discuss, analyze, evaluate, and interpret primary sources. Secondary sources are often published works, such as textbooks, documentaries, journal articles, and nonfiction books. Also includes interpretations of the significance of data sets, book or movie reviews, etc.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between primary and secondary sources. For example, some materials might be considered a primary source of one topic but a secondary source for another. For example,  a biography about Amelia Earhart might be a secondary source for a research project about Amelia Earhart, but a primary source for a research project analyzing how historians have interpreted her life. 

Examples of Primary and Secondary Sources

 

Primary

Secondary

History

"The Gettysburg Address" by Abraham Lincoln

Television documentary on the aftermath of the Civil War

Literature

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Magazine review of a film adaptation that compares and contrasts the film and the novel

Art

The Mona Lisa by Leonardo DaVinci

Journal article about Renaissance painters

Political Science

U.S. Census Statistics

Book about changes in racial composition of urban cities in the U.S.

Biology

Results of an original experiment

Conference presentation on the significance of the experiment results in comparison to similar studies

WHY USE PRIMARY SOURCES?

Primary sources are used across academic disciplines to bring authenticity and authority to research. Using primary sources gives a researcher a chance to interpret historic events and figures, analyze information, and support their arguments with evidence. Interpreting historical sources also helps researchers translate those skills to analyze and evaluate contemporary information. Using primary sources engages researchers with the idea of history as an active process-one which allows for their contributions as well.   

Using primary sources requires critical and analytical thinking. Keep in mind:

  • Personal opinions and biases (especially in diaries and letters)
  • Incorrect or exaggerated presentations of "facts" – try to confirm facts with other sources
  • Contextualizing the information

 

Information from the GVSU Special Collections and University Archives Subject Guide.

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Have other questions? Research consultants can help! We specialize in brainstorming topics, finding sources, reading scholarly materials, and evaluating research. 

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