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Library Research Strategies: Primary & Secondary Sources

What Are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are first-hand accounts of topics or events. They provide firsthand testimony or direct evidence.

Primary sources include diaries, speeches, letters, manuscripts, memoirs, autobiographies, records of governments or organizations, and published materials (books, journals, newspaper articles) written at the time of an event or issue. Primary sources may also include photographs, tape recordings, oral histories, and maps. In literature, an original work such as a novel, poem, short story or play is also considered to be a primary source.

Secondary sources are accounts of the past written after the event. They are often based on information found in primary sources. They interpret or analyze a particular event. Secondary sources include textbooks, encyclopedias, and literary criticism.

  • It is often a good idea to review the secondary literature first to gain an understanding of the key players and events associated with the topic.

  • Primary sources are much easier to find with specific names and events for searching.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources were generally created after the time period or event under consideration.  Secondary Sources provide commentary, evaluation, or interpretation of a primary source. Secondary sources include:

  • Biographies
  • Bibliographies (may also be Tertiary)
  • Textbooks
  • Documentaries
  • Commentaries/Criticisms
  • Encyclopedias (may also be Tertiary)
  • Journal and magazine articles
  • Non-fiction books about an event or time period
  • Web sites

Primary vs. Secondary Source Tutorial