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Primary and Secondary Sources

This guide will explain what primary and secondary sources are and how to find them.

Getting Started

Sometimes professors may require students to find primary sources for their research papers in addition to secondary sources. This guide explains the difference between primary and secondary sources and shows readers how to search for and locate primary and secondary sources.

Primary Sources

What is a Primary Source?

A primary source is an original document or object, something that was created or written during the time that is being researched. It is first-hand information from someone who was present at the scene of action or witnessed an event when it occurred. It gives us an up, close and personal view of a particular event or time.

Examples Include:

  • Audio/Video Recordings
  • Census and Demographic Records
  • Creative works such as poetry, drama, fiction, music, art
  • Diaries
  • Government Documents
  • Historical documents such as charters, constitutions, etc.
  • Interviews
  • Journal articles reporting original research, empirical data, statistics, etc.
  • Legal documents (laws and legislative hearings)
  • Letters and correspondences
  • News footage
  • Photographs
  • Speeches

Secondary Sources

What is a Secondary Source?

A secondary source interprets and analyzes a primary source. These sources are one or two steps removed from the event or occurrence. They may include comments, discussions, reviews and explanations; they are considered second-hand sources because they are based on the primary source. A secondary source may contain quotes, graphics or pictures of primary sources in them.

Examples Include: 

  • Biographies
  • Books that discuss or analyze a topic
  • Commentaries
  • Criticisms
  • Encyclopedias
  • Indexes and Abstracts
  • Journal or magazine articles that interpret or discuss previous research findings but do not contain research of their own on the topic (such as a literature review)
  • Reviews of art, books, movies, plays, etc.
  • Textbooks


Examples of primary and secondary sources in the various disciplines were compiled by Lisa Bier.