Primary vs Secondary Sources
A primary source is an original object or document, such as the raw material from an experiment or a diary from someone during a particular time period. Primary sources are necessary for the research process, both for humanities research and sciences, to understand the original information source, whether that’s an experiment, a painting, or an historical event. Primary sources include eyewitness accounts, creative writing, works of art, and empirical research studies.
A secondary source is any work that has been written about a primary source. Some examples include a book about Michelangelo’s artwork or a biography of a person. In the sciences, secondary sources include articles in scholarly and popular sources that discuss or evaluate someone else’s original research. The key difference between a primary and a secondary source is that there is some distance between the author of the secondary source and the main information being discussed.
Whether an item is a primary or secondary source can also depend on what your topic is. For example, a biography of Bill Clinton would be a secondary source if you were writing a report on Bill Clinton. However, it would be a primary source if you were writing about different types of biographies. This can be confusing, but the key point to remember is that a primary source provides direct evidence pertaining to your research topic, while a secondary source provides indirect evidence.
Here are some questions to ask that may help you determine whether you have a primary or secondary source:
- Who created the item that you're looking at?
- Why did they create the item?
- Where did they get their information from?
- What is their experience?
- What are they trying to say?
- What other sources might help you better understand the item?
- How does this source relate to my research topic?
Examples of sources