What is a Primary Source?

There are three types of sources used in research:

Primary Sources

A primary source is a firsthand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. Primary sources are written or created during the time period being studied, or by a person directly involved in the event. The nature and value of the sources cannot be determined without reference to the topic and question it is meant to answer. Primary sources offer an inside view of a particular event or time period. Some types of primary sources are:

Original Documents Creative Works Artifacts
Diaries Novels Jewelry
Speeches Music Tools
Letters Films Pottery
Minutes Visual Art Clothing
Interviews Poetry Buildings
Research Data Performing Arts Furniture
News Film Footage
Autobiographies    

Examples:

  • Diary of Ann Frank - experience of Jews in World War II
  • The Declaration of Independence - United States History
  • Arrowheads and pottery - Native American history

Secondary Sources

A Secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. Secondary sources are one step removed from the primary sources. Some types of secondary sources are:

Textbooks Journal Articles Histories
Criticism Commentaries Encyclopedias
Biographies    

 Examples:

  • Thomas Jefferson: A Life - a biography of Thomas Jefferson
  • The Encyclopedia of Education - brief treatments of educational topic
  • Introduction to Psychology - Psychology textbook

Access Tools

Access tools help locate primary and secondary sources. Some types of access tools are:

Databases Bibliographies Subject Guides
Online Catalogs Subject Directories Search Engines

Examples:

  • ERIC - index of educational research
  • WebPAC - online catalog
  • Google.com - search engine

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