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Primary and Secondary Sources: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Purpose

The purpose of this guide is to help you - the student, better understand the differences between primary and secondary sources, as well as provide you with ways in which to access primary source material.

What are Primary & Secondary Sources?

Primary sources are the raw materials of history — original documents and objects which were created at the time under study. They are different from secondary sources, accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience. (read more at Library of Congress)

Secondary sources interpret primary sources, and include comments on, interpretations of, or discussions about the original material.  It helps to think of secondary sources as second-hand information. 

The definition of a primary source often varies depending upon the academic discipline and the context in which it is used. (read more on this at Lafayette College)

Websites

Finding Primary Sources
Library of Congress Collections

Finding Primary Sources on the Web
American Library Association | Reference & User Services Association.

Florida Memory Project
Division of Library & Information Services

Immigration to the United States, 1798-1930
Harvard Library

Decennial Historical Census
United States Census Bureau

Palm Beach State College Archive
PBSC Libraries

For more primary source resources visit our History Resources Guide.

You can also try adding the phrase "primary sources" to your Internet searches.

Examples of Primary Sources

Primary source examples by discipline (from Lafayette College):

  • Anthropology
    artifact, field notes, fossil, photograph
  • Art
    architectural model or drawing, building or structure, letter, motion picture, organizational records, painting, personal account, photograph, print, sculpture, sketch book
  • Biology
    field notes, plant specimen, research report
  • Economics
    company statistics, consumer survey, data series
  • Engineering
    building or structure, map, geological survey, patent, schematic drawing, technical report
  • Government
    government report, interview, letter, news report, personal account, press release, public opinion survey, speech, treaty or international agreement
  • History
    artifact, diary, government report, interview, letter, map, news report (from that moment in time), oral history, organizational records, photograph, speech, work of art
  • Law
    code, statute, court opinion, legislative report
  • Literature
    contemporary review, interview, letter, manuscript, personal account, published work
  • Music
    contemporary review, letter, personal account, score, sound recording
  • Psychology
    case study, clinical case report, experimental replication, follow-up study, longitudinal study, treatment outcome study
  • Sociology
    cultural artifact, interview, oral history, organizational records, statistical data, survey

Examples of Secondary Sources

  • Reference articles
  • Encyclopedia articles
  • Newspaper articles
  • Magazine articles
  • Literary Criticism/Analysis
  • Book Reviews
  • Documentaries
  • Books including: textbooks, biographies, history books, and more 

(read more on recognizing secondary sources at Harvard Library)