Primary and Secondary Sources for the
Humanities and the Social Sciences

When searching for information on a topic, it is important to understand the value of both primary and secondary sources. This handout briefly explains what these types of sources are and provides examples of each.

Primary Sources

A primary source is an original document containing firsthand information about a topic.

Different fields of study may use different types of primary sources. Common examples of a primary source are:

  • Diaries
  • Interviews
  • Letters
  • Original works of art
  • Photographs
  • Works of literature

Secondary Sources

A secondary source contains commentary on or discussion about a primary source. The most important feature of secondary sources is that they offer an interpretation of information gathered from primary sources. Common examples of a secondary source are:

  • Biographies
  • Dissertations
  • Indexes, Abstracts, Bibliographies (used to locate a secondary source)
  • Journal Articles
  • Monographs


Sometimes, the same source might be a primary source for one research paper and a secondary source for another. It all depends on the relationship of the source to your research question. For example, if you are researching Franklin Roosevelt's life, the book No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II by Doris Kearns Goodwin would be a secondary source. If you were researching the literary style of Ms. Goodwin, it would be a primary source.
*From Joyner Library, East Carolina University

Additional examples of primary and secondary sources relating to a particular subject:

Primary Source Secondary Source
Art Original artwork Article critiquing the piece of art
History Slave diary Book about the Underground Railroad
Literature Poem Treatise on a particular genre of poetry
Political Science Treaty Essay on Native American land rights
Theater Videotape of a performance Biography of a playwright

Primary sources are first hand sources; secondary sources are second-hand sources. For example, suppose there had been a car accident. The description of the accident which a witness gives to the police is a primary source because it comes from someone actually there at the time. The story in the newspaper the next day is a secondary source because the reporter who wrote the story did not actually witness it. The reporter is presenting a way of understanding the accident or an interpretation.
*From North Park University, History Department

However, the distinctions between primary and secondary sources can be ambiguous. An individual document may be a primary source in one context and a secondary source in another. Time is a defining element. For example, a recent newspaper article is not usually a primary source; but a newspaper article from the 1860ís may be a primary source for civil war research.
*From CBB Library and IT Consortium

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