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Using Primary Sources

Introduction

When researching information on a particular topic, it is important to identify the type of information you need. One way this is achieved is by understanding whether you need primary and secondary sources.

A simplified distinction between the two relates to the source’s degree of separation from the topic. However, this definition is somewhat vague, so this guide will discuss the differences between these two types of sources in more detail and how their characteristics effect the research process.

An Important Note - While the definitions for primary and secondary sources are pretty standard, these examples can vary from one type to the other, depending on how the materials are used. For example if you are doing research on the Holocaust, Schindler’s List might be a secondary source. However, if you are researching how the Holocaust is portrayed in film Schindler’s List would be a primary source.

Primary Sources

Primary sources are those resources that have immediate interaction with the topic, and are often first hand or original accounts of events or research. These sources can either be unpublished materials like interviews, letters, or diaries, or published works contemporary with the event like, newspapers or magazine articles. Primary sources also include original creative works like a novel, poem, or film, and original research reports in the sciences or social sciences. Below is a larger list of primary sources:

  • Diaries and personal journals
  • Interviews and correspondences 
  • Works of art, films, or literature
  • Newspaper and magazine articles contemporary with the topic
  • Photographs
  • Census and other statistical data
  • First publication of research results (sciences or social sciences)

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources reflect on the primary sources, often analyzing or interpreting them in order to draw a larger conclusion about the topic focused on by the primary sources. Instead of being contemporary with the topic or event, they are at least one step removed. Examples of these sources can be scholarly articles, books, reviews, criticisms, textbooks, or documentaries. Even encyclopedias fall into this category. Below are some more specific examples:

  • Criticisms about a popular novel or film
  • Chapter from a textbooks
  • Documentaries on the Civil War
  • Scholarly articles analyzing the employment of women during WWII
  • Magazine articles reporting on the current advances in quantum physics
  • An encyclopedia article outlining the philosophy of David Hume
  • Literature Reviews outlining the current developments in field of study