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Middle & Upper School Library: Primary Sources

Common Examples

Primary sources may be published or unpublished, or may not even be written material. Common primary sources include:

  • Records of a government, business, or organization
  • Letters, diaries, memoirs, interviews, speeches
  • Sketches and other art, creative writing and poetry
  • Videotapes, sound recordings, maps, photos
  • Accounts in newspapers and magazines around the time of the event or topic
  • Artifacts and relics, like clothing, buildings, and coins

 
Common secondary sources might include:

  • Your school textbooks
  • Modern books and articles (scholarly or popular) that analyze or reflect on a historical event or time period

 
Additionally, tertiary sources are those that synthesize secondary sources (so they are even further removed from the first-hand experiences that are documented in primary sources).

  • Many encyclopedias would qualify as tertiary; however, some encyclopedias may include an appendix or volume of primary documents, in which case those specific contents would be primary, even though the actual entries in the encyclopedia are tertiary.

Video: Primary vs Secondary Sources

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources convey first-hand experience of the event or time period you’re studying.

Secondary sources convey the experiences of others, or “second-hand” information; they often synthesize a collection of primary sources.

 

There's also a third group called tertiary sources, which are like "third-hand" information; they usually synthesize a collection of secondary sources.

PRIMARY Sources:

  • First-hand accounts by people who experienced event.
  • A person's account of own feelings, actions, or experiences.
  • Object or document that comes directly from person, place, or event being researched.

SECONDARY Sources:

  • Second-hand accounts by people who did not experience event.
  • One person's account of someone else's feelings, actions, or experiences.
  • Object or document that originates much later than person, place, or event being researched.
  • Contains INTERPRETATIONS, analysis, synthesis.

Content Versus Format:

  • Is a newspaper always primary, and is a book always secondary? NO.
  • "Primary" and "secondary" relate to the CONTENT, not the format.
  • Primary sources OFTEN appear in document types such as letters and newspapers, but a source doesn't have to be primary just because of its format. The same is true of sources on paper versus sources on the Internet, and sources which are duplicated as they appear (by scanning or photographing) versus sources which are transcribed (retyped word for word in plain text) -- it's the content that counts.

It's All About CONTEXT:

  • There is nothing inherent in a document or object that automatically makes it always be "primary" or "secondary."
  • YOUR RESEARCH QUESTION determines whether the source is primary or secondary for YOUR research.
  • The same document could be a primary source for one paper and a secondary source for another paper.
  • Example: 1975 biography about Abraham Lincoln would probably be a...
    -- Secondary source if you are studying Lincoln’s life.
    -- Primary source if you are studying how people wrote historical biographies in the 1970s.

How to Evaluate a Source

First, read the source!! Then ask yourself:

    1. What kind of document/object is this?
    2. Who created it? What is his role/occupation?
    3. When was it written/created? (And when was the event I am researching?)
    4. What information does this source convey?

Try to fill in this sentence: "This is a _____ written by ____, who is ____. It was written in ____ and it contains _____."

Then read that sentence aloud and ask yourself: does that add up to Primary or Secondary?