Whether conducting research in the social sciences, humanities (especially history), arts, or natural sciences, the ability to distinguish between primary and secondary sources is essential. Your instructor may ask you to find one of these types of sources for a class project or paper.
Most simply, this distinction illustrates the degree to which the author of a piece is removed from the actual event being described, informing the reader as to whether the author is reporting impressions first hand or conveying the experiences and opinions of others—that is, second hand.
Primary and secondary sources are different between the disciplines, so understanding what constitutes each is very valuable.
This may be about an event, object, or person; work of art or literature; or findings from original research.
These are accounts of an event, written by someone who experienced or witnessed the event in question. These original documents are often diaries, letters, memoirs, journals, speeches, manuscripts, interviews and other such unpublished works. Primary sources may also include published pieces such as newspaper or magazine articles (as long as they are written soon after the fact and not as historical accounts), research reports in the natural or social sciences, or original literary, art, or theatrical works.
The function of secondary sources is to interpret primary sources, often quote or otherwise use the primary source. Thus, they can be described as at least one step removed from the event or phenomenon under review.
Secondary source materials, then, contain information that has been interpreted, commented, analyzed or processed in such a way that it no longer conveys the freshness of the original primary sources. These are usually in the form of published works such as journal articles or books, but may include radio or television documentaries, or conference proceedings.
|Original artwork, e.g. Frida Kahlo's Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird
|Article critiquing the piece of artwork, e.g. an article comparing multiple of Kahlo's paintings
|Annual report of a company, e.g. Starbucks
|A review of a company or industry, e.g. the coffee shop industry
|Diary, e.g. the diary of Cesar Chavez
|A book on the topic, e.g. a book on the United Farmworkers Movement
|Poems, short fiction, or book of literature, e.g. Octavia Butler's Parable of a Sower
|An article or book critiquing the book or author, e.g. an article analyzing Octavia Butler's writing
|A bill that is passed into law, e.g. Equal Rights Amendment
|An analysis of the law and its impact on the country, e.g. a documentary on the impacts of the ERA
|Report of an experiment, e.g. an article analyzing the feeding habits of the two-toed sloth
|A book on a general science, e.g. a book on small mammals
|Social or Behavioral Sciences
|An article reporting the findings of original research, e.g. an article on student's confidence and academic success
|A literature review of several studies on a topic, e.g. a literature review confidence and academic success
|A video recording of a theater performance, e.g. Arsenic and Old Lace
|A biography of the playwright, e.g. Joseph Kesselring