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Archives: Primary Sources: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

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

Introduction

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 across disciplines. Streamline your research and learn the difference between primary and secondary sources for your field of study as soon as possible. 

Primary sources are a fundamental component of historical research because they document an event or time period. Primary sources vary in form and include documents, images, or artifacts. These original works serve as direct evidence and are considered authoritative because they report on discoveries or events, they represent original ideas, or they shed insight on new information. Generally, primary sources are created at the time the events occurred, but not always. 

Secondary sources provide an analysis or an interpretation and reference the primary source as evidence. Secondary sources often describe or explain primary sources as they attempt to answer a scholarly research question or persuade the reader of the creator's argument.    

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 provides an interpretation and can be further analyzed. While both the newspaper article and the book discuss the same topic, ultimately, they have different meanings and are different source types. 

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, news footage, oral histories, and audio recordings
  • 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 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.

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