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Primary Resources: Home

This guide will provide information on identifying, locating, and utilizing primary resources for research across various disciplines.

Introduction to Primary and Secondary Sources

You've probably heard your instructors talking about primary and secondary resources at several points during your high school and college career, but maybe you're not quite clear on them or the definition seems a bit muddy when you go to apply it. You're not alone. Classifying a resource as primary or secondary isn't always as cut and dry as the examples used to simplify the definitions. Some resources contain both, such as newspapers and journals. In these cases you have to take each article on an individual basis and analyze it based on whether or not it's a firsthand account, a retelling, or a review, for example. It is also important at times to think about how you are using the resource. A contemporaneous account of a real person or event might be farcical, for example (think political cartoons and satires), where the information presented might not be literally what happened, but would be a good primary source on public opinion of that topic.

Continue below for some definitions and examples that should help you determine when you've got a primary resource in hand. Continue to the next page for some help in finding these primary resources.

Primary

A primary resource offers a firsthand and/or contemporaneous account of something. In this type of resource you are getting your information straight from the horses mouth. When in doubt, seek a second opinion from a librarian or your instructor. Some examples would be:

  • Oral histories - not always the most reliable since they're typically recorded many years after the events discussed occur, but nevertheless a valuable source because they often contain information one cannot find elsewhere.
  • Newspapers - must analyze the specific newspaper and story. Some publications are notoriously sensationalistic and therefore unreliable for most research purposes. Newspaper articles are typically considered primary resources when they are contemporaneous to the topic at hand and/or when they are first-person accounts.
  • Letters, Diaries, Journals, Minutes, Legal Papers, and other miscellaneous records that have not been posthumously edited.
  • Scientific Research Papers - detailing the full study, method, findings, and etc. from a particular experiment. A paper where someone is reviewing a cumulation of studies on a certain topic would not be primary.
  • Photos, Paintings, Music, Artifacts, Digital Objects, and other creations - can be used as primary resources, but tend to require a good deal more interpretation depending on the amount of information available to accurately describe the object.
  • Government Documents and Statistical Data

Secondary

A secondary resource provides information based on things found in primary resources. These might present an accumulation of information from several resources like in a textbook or be about a specific resource, such as a third-person interpretation of a piece of artwork. These are secondhand accounts, so anything that is a retelling of a story, or a translation, for example, would be secondary. See some examples of secondary resources below:

  • Your instructor's lecture - unless the lecture is specifically recounting the instructor's own experience.
  • Newspaper articles - where the topic is a look back at something or an analysis of the data, etc. which is more than just an accounting of the facts at hand. Note that these items may be primary if being used to support studies about public opinion, political ideology, etc. where the analysis of the author is more prescient to the argument than the strict facts around a situation.
  • Research Journal Articles - which are more of a review of accumulated studies on a topic and not the results of one specific experiment.
  • Textbooks
  • Historiographies
  • Translations
  • Documentaries 

Subject Guide

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