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Primary Sources in Various Disciplines: Getting Started

Description, explanation, and examples of primary vs. secondary sources in the humanities, arts, social sciences and sciences.

Secondary Sources

What is a secondary source?

Secondary sources are articles, books, documentary films that analyze and interpret primary sources.

Why use secondary sources?

Librarians often suggest you use secondary sources in order to determine which primary sources to look at.

It is important that you understand how and why you use different types of sources.

Examples of Secondary Sources

Here are some examples of Secondary Sources:

Books: Detailed analysis by scholars and experts with criticism, commentaries, and interpretation of primary ideas and finding.

Journal Articles: More specific analysis, criticisms, commentaries, and interpretations of particular aspects of primary ideas and findings. These could be online or in print.

Literature Reviews: Summaries of current primary literature within a specific field or on a particular topic.




Newspaper Articles: Articles which report on earlier findings, or offer commentary or opinions.

Internet/Web Sites: Comment on earlier findings or research

Primary Sources

What is a Primary Source?

Generally, primary sources are the materials you use when analyzing a question. Different fields determine primary sources differently, because they do research differently.

In humanities and fine arts, primary sources are the creator's works, manuscripts,  and letters.

In the social sciences and sciences, primary sources are raw data or reports of experiments and studies.

Why use Primary Sources?

Faculty like you to use primary sources so that you can learn the research processes of your field. They also want you to decide on your own if other researchers' interpretations are correct.

Looking at the data that researchers and theorists use allows you to come to conclusions on your own.

It is not always easy to distinguish between primary and secondary sources.  A newspaper article is a primary source if it is reporting the news or the views of the day, but may be a secondary source if it includes analysis and research based on other sources.  If a source does not fit the description of a primary source, it is most likely a secondary source.

Examples of Primary Sources

Here are more examples of Primary Sources.  As noted above, it depends on the subject area as to what they are considered Primary Sources:

First-person Accounts: Diaries, memoirs, letters, interviews, speeches.

Books: These can also be secondary sources.  Primary sources include those which consist of extensive and detailed discussions of a particular topic, or set of topics, written by the scholars and researchers who came up with the ideas or discovered the findings.

Journal Articles: Specific analyses of particular aspects of a topic, written by the scholars and researchers who came up with the ideas or discovered the findings. These can be online or in print.

Newspaper or Magazine Articles: Written AT THE TIME of an event.  Also stories on a breaking issue, journalists reporting the results of their investigations, and newspaper ads.


Government Documents: Census statistics/data, economic data, court reports, etc.

Original Reports and Research

Results of Experiments

Survey Research


Lab Reports: experiments, observations, etc.

Works of Art or Literature: Poems, short stories, paintings, etc.

Historical Documents: Official papers, maps, treaties, etc.

Audio and Visual Resources: Audio, video, photographs

Artifacts: Clothing, furniture, tools, buildings, etc.


Internet/Web sites: Web sites that publish the author's findings or research.  NOTE: Use extreme caution when using the Internet as a primary source.

Subject Guide

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Merrie Davidson
O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library | LIB 153