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Archives: Primary Sources: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Welcome: This guide serves as an introduction to primary sources.


This page should help students understand the differences between primary and secondary sources and how to locate the appropriate sources to further their research. Archival materials refer to documents, records, and photographs created, received, or accumulated by an individual, family, or associations as a natural, spontaneous result of their normal, everyday activities.  

About this guide

The home page exclaimed that primary and secondary sources are indeed different. The purpose of this page is to further elaborate those differences so that students may properly research each source type.

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Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Distinguishing the two source types:

Before starting, it's important to know that both primary and secondary sources vary in each subject. Streamline your research and know the difference between primary and secondary sources as soon as possible. 

Primary sources are concrete works with legitimate facts backing the work while secondary sources mainly consist of an analysis on the primary sources. Secondary sources provide an interpretation on the primary source. 

A newspaper article about the sinking of the Titanic days after the incident serves as a primary source. A Secondary source would be a recently published book discussing the Titanic's impact on history. The article is a real life account with concrete information while the book is more interpretive and can be further analyzed. Both discuss the same topic but ultimately have different meanings. 

Examples of Primary and Secondary Sources for a variety of subjects are listed below.

Primary Sources

  • Biographies and other biographical material such as memoirs, personal letters, and documents ("The Diary of Anne Frank")
  • Research studies (The Harlow studies)
  • Original literary works such as novels, poems, plays, short stories etc. ("Of Mice and Men")
  • Photos, videos/films, and audio recordings ("The sinking of theTitanic")
  • Speeches and Government addresses ("Gettysburg Address")

Secondary Sources

  • Any type of written commentary on biographical or historical work (A book where the author commentates on The Diary of Anne Frank)
  • An analysis of a research study or studies (A scholarly article analyzing the The Harlow studies)
  • Articles or magazines describing a literary works impact or significance (An article that details the significance of how the book "Of Mice and Men" comments on the Great Depression)
  • Articles or magazines commenting on films, art, and photography (A magazine section that speaks of the importance of Jackson Pollock's career to the art world)
  • Literary work that discusses government impact on society or to a specific group (A book that details the importance of the Gettysburg Address)

Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources are both Primary and Secondary sources compiled together in a singular medium.

Examples include: Encyclopedias, Manuals, Dictionaries, Almanacs, Indexes, Abstracts, etc.

Special Collections Librarian

Dr. Elizabeth Rivera's picture
Dr. Elizabeth Rivera