Primary Sources

What is a Primary Source?

A handwritten letter Newspapers in black and white Photograph of Civil War veterans, Washington, DC, 1865 A diary

 

Primary sources in the Humanities are records that provide first-hand testimony or evidence of an event, action, topic, or time period. Primary sources are usually created by individuals who directly experience an event or topic, and record their experience through photographs, videos, memoirs, correspondence, oral histories, or autobiographies.

Common Examples of PRIMARY Sources in the Humanities:
Letters, diaries, memoirs, speeches, interviews, photographs, notes, subject files, oral histories, autobiographies, travelogues, pamphlets, newspapers, newsletters, brochures, government documents including hearings, reports and statistical data, military service records, manuscripts, archival materials, artifacts, architectural plans, artistic works, works of fiction, music scores, and sound recordings.

Primary sources in the Social and Natural Sciences, also referred to as primary research, report a researcher's methodology, results, findings and data from their own original research, ideas, experiments, or scientific discoveries.

Common Examples of PRIMARY Sources in the Social and Natural Sciences:
Published research findings, case studies, conference papers, patents, lab notebooks, surveys, and raw data.

Photo credits:
Letter, clipart.com
Newspapers in black and white, Jon S, photographer, photo available on Flickr.com. Some rights reserved. CC BY 2.0
Washington, D.C. Company D 10th U.S. Veteran Reserve Corps, James Gardner, photographer, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-DIG-cwpb-04379 DLC
writing in bed (Diary), louveciennes, photo available on Flickr.com.

What is a Secondary Source?

Secondary sources interpret, analyze, critique,or comment on information found in primary sources and put them into context. They are usually written by individuals who did not experience the events firsthand. A key component of many secondary sources is the presence of a thesis statement or argument made by the author.

Common Examples of SECONDARY Sources:
A book that analyzes the attack on the Alamo, a scholarly journal article critiquing a work of art, reviews of previously published research, literature reviews, biographies.

Primary vs Secondary Sources: A Comparison

 Discipline

Primary Source

Secondary Source

History

Slave diary

Book about the underground railroad

Art

Original artwork created by an artist

Article critiquing the piece of art

Literature

Original poem written by a poet

Essay on a particular genre of poetry

Political Science

Treaty between two governments

Essay on Native American land rights in the US

Science or Social Sciences

Report of an original experiment

Review of several studies on the same topic

Theatre

Videotape of a performance

Biography of a playwright

Table courtesy http://www.bgsu.edu/colleges/library/assistance/page41012.html

Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources compile, distill, and summarize factual information obtained from other (usually secondary) sources. They often provide a broad overview of a topic. A tertiary source does not contain a thesis or argument. The absence of a thesis or argument is a key difference between a tertiary source and a secondary source. Many tertiary sources are also referred to as reference sources.

Common Examples of TERTIARY Sources:
Almanacs, dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks, directories, manuals, textbooks.