Primary vs Secondary Sources

Defining Sources

1) Primary Sources

  • Materials that contain direct evidence, first-hand information from a person who witnessed or participated in an event.
  • Primary sources provide the raw data for your research
  • The way you interpret or use a source determines whether it is a primary source or not.

2) Secondary Sources

  • Use primary source data to analyze an event or solve a research problem.
  • Secondary sources can be interpreted as primary sources when the artifactual characteristics of the item are of research value.

3) Tertiary Sources

  • Books or articles that synthesize and report on secondary sources for general readers
  • Examples:  textbooks, encyclopedia articles, Wikipedia
Be careful!
What is considered a primary source in one discipline can be classified as a secondary source in another. Check with your professor or a research librarian if you are unsure.



Primary Source

Secondary Source


original poem

book or article discussing a genre of poetry


diary, letters

book or article surveying a topic or period

Political Science

treaty, government document

article on the application of a treaty


original artwork

critique of the artwork

Theater/ Film


biography of a famous director

Sciences/ Social Sciences

report of an original experiment, research data and statistics

review of several related studies

How Do You Find Them?

  • Hit the stacks! The bibliography and footnotes of a secondary source is a goldmine of information. They list all the primary sources and in depth, secondary research done by a scholar who spent a lot more time searching and compiling sources.

  • Searching for a primary source as you begin your research is very difficult.  Finding an appropriate sources may take time, but let your research sources tell you about primary source possibilities and then begin the search now knowing exactly what you’re looking for.

  • Many primary sources can be found online. Whether a science index, social science database, or digitized historical material, start with the resources available through the library website.

  • Our catalog is filled with books that have reprinted primary source material.  If you do a keyword search for your topic and one of the words below, you may find something very convenient for you to use.

  • charters

  • correspondence

  • diaries

  • early works

  • interviews

  • manuscripts

  • oratory

  • pamphlets

  • personal narratives

  • sources

  • speeches

  • letters

  • documents