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Primary Source Research and Discovery

An introduction to primary source research

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources

A primary source provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event, object, person, or work of art. Primary sources include historical and legal documents, eyewitness accounts, results of experiments, statistical data, pieces of creative writing, audio and video recordings, speeches, and art objects. Interviews, surveys, fieldwork, and Internet communications via email, blogs, listservs, and newsgroups are also primary sources. In the natural and social sciences, primary sources are often empirical studies—research where an experiment was performed or a direct observation was made. The results of empirical studies are typically found in scholarly articles or papers delivered at conferences.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources describe, discuss, interpret, comment upon, analyze, evaluate, summarize, and process primary sources. Secondary source materials can be articles in newspapers or popular magazines, book or movie reviews, or articles found in scholarly journals that discuss or evaluate someone else's original research. 

Definition courtesy of Ithaca College Library Research Guide, Primary vs Secondary section.

Clues for Identifying Primary Sources

Clues for identifying primary source characteristics

Characteristics of Primary Sources

  • Primary sources can either be first-hand observation/analysis or accounts contemporary with the events described.
  • Primary sources document events, people, viewpoints of the time.
  • When research is more era, rather than event-driven, the scope of possible primary sources broadens considerably.
  • Primary sources represent one person's perspective; frequently will be used with  secondary/tertiary  sources to broaden the lens through which a researcher is looking at an event, era, or phenomenon.
  • It is important when using anything as a primary source that the researcher be cognizant of and sensitive to the bias of the observer/analyzer that created the primary source, and also to the broader cultural biases of the era in which the primary source was created.
  • The researcher's perspective, or the arguments or points for which a researcher plans to use a primary source as evidence, is significant in determining what sources will be primary.
  • Reproductions of primary sources remain primary for many research purposes.
  • Some attributes are based more on the perspective represented in the source and context in which the source is being used by researcher.

Bullet points courtesy of The University of California at Irvine Libraries.

Primary, Secondary, Tertiary Examples

Primary, Secondary, Tertiary sources

The infographic below gives the definition, characteristics, and examples of primary, secondary and tertiary sources. Notice, journal articles are listed for the sciences as a primary source and a secondary source for non-scientific disciplines. At the top of the graphic is the publishing timeline. As you can see primary sources are generally published first, then secondary sources. In the research timeline, secondary sources are generally consulted first to provide needed context for primary source research.

Primary, Secondary, Tertiary Sources Infographic