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Primary and Secondary Sources: Primary & Secondary


Why is it important to be able distinguish primary and secondary sources?

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. 

Primary Sources

Primary Sources provide direct or first hand evidence

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original documents are often diaries, letters, memoirs, journals, speeches, manuscripts, interviews and other such unpublished works.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. 

Examples of Primary Sources:

  • Newspaper reports, by reporters who witnessed an event or who quote people who did.
  • Speeches, diaries, letters and interviews - what the people involved said or wrote.
  • Original research.
  • Datasets, survey data, such as census or economic statistics.
  • Texts of laws, legislative hearings, and other government documents.
  • Original works of art, poems, or literature
  • Performances 
  • Photographs, video, or audio that capture an event.
  • P‚Äčlant and animal specimens
  • Coins and tools

Secondary Sources

Secondary Sources are one step removed from primary sources

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.

Examples of Secondary Sources: 

  • Articles critiquing or reviewing a performance, piece of art, or literature
  • Critiques of research
  • Literature reviews
  • Biographies
  • Articles or books about a topic, especially when written by people not directly involved.
  • Essay on a treaty or topic of history
  • Documentaries (though they often include photos or video portions that can be considered primary sources).

Examples by Subject Area

Examples of Primary and Secondary Source by Subject Area

Table of examples of primary and secondary sources across subject areas
Discipline Primary Source Secondary Source
Art 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
Business Annual report of a company, e.g. Starbucks A review of a company or industry, e.g. the coffee shop industry
History Diary, e.g. the diary of Cesar Chavez A book on the topic, e.g. a book on the United Farmworkers Movement
Literature 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
Political Science 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
Sciences 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
Theater A video recording of a theater performance, e.g. Arsenic and Old Lace A biography of the playwright, e.g. Joseph Kesselring