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University Libraries Breadcrumb Trail. Information Literacy Breadcrumb Trail. Primary and Secondary Sources for the Humanities and the Social Sciences

Primary and Secondary Sources for the Humanities and the Social Sciences

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:

  • Autobiographies
  • Diaries
  • Eyewitness Accounts
  • Interview Transcripts
  • Legal Documents
  • Letters
  • Original works of art
  • Photographs of the topic
  • Original Research
  • Video Footage of the topic event
  • 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
  • Indexes, Abstracts, Bibliographies (used to locate a secondary source)
  • Journal Articles
  • Literary Criticism
  • Monographs written about the topic
  • Reviews of books, movies, musical recordings,. works of art, etc.

Primary versus Secondary Information

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 who was actually there at the time. The next day's newspaper story is a secondary source because the reporter who wrote the story did not actually witness the event.  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. It is important to remember that you cannot determine whether a source is primary or secondary solely based on the document type. An individual document may be a primary source in one context and a secondary source in another. For example, the movie Love, Marilyn is a secondary source when the topic is Marilyn Monroe; it would be considered a primary source if the topic of research was the works of Liz Garbus (the film's director).

Additionally, time can be a defining element. For example, a recent newspaper article is not usually a primary source; but a newspaper article from the 1860’s may be a primary source for United States Civil War research.

*From CBB Library and IT Consortium

Examples of Primary and Secondary Sources

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

Tips for Finding Primary Sources

  • Primary Sources Libguide:
  • Search the library catalog
    • Add primary document-related keywords to the topic search : paper, letter, correspondence, diary, diaries, document, interviews, speech, pamphlet (truncation * to retrieve word variations, including plural)
    • Search the Government Documents' Collection (select Gov't Doc tab) . This includes primary sources such as supreme court transactions, reports, Congressional bills, and transcripts of eyewitness accounts of historically significant events (e.g., Hurricane Katrina and 9/11).
  • Search Older Newspaper Databases

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