Primary vs Secondary Sources

last modified 2018-10-24T16:21:27-04:00
This page will help you understand the difference between primary and secondary sources, and why they're important.

Why are source types important?

  • A primary source helps you understand the original context of an event or experiment.
  • A secondary source helps you understand how scholars interpret the original information.

What is a primary source?

  • It is an original resource or document, like data from an experiment or a letter from the Civil War.
  • This also includes creative works (like paintings, films, or poetry), eyewitness accounts, and empirical research studies.

What is a secondary source?

  • It is a source that is written about a primary source, like a biography of a person or a scientific literature review.
  • A secondary source reviews or critiques the original source(s).

Is this a hard and fast rule?

  • No! It can change depending 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. It would be a primary source if you were writing about different types of biographies.
  • Remember--the key point is that a primary source gives you direct evidence about your research topic, while a secondary source reviews that original content.

These questions can help you discover if your source is primary or secondary:

  • Who created the item that you're looking at?
  • Why did they create the item?
  • Where did they get their information from?
  • 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?

You can look at this worksheet on Primary and Secondary to get help understanding and evaluating your resources.

Examples of sources

Humanities Sciences
Primary Source
  • Diaries, emails, and letters
  • Newspaper from the era, such as newspapers published during the Civil War
  • Government records (census, marriage, military)
  • Photographs, maps, postcards, posters, paintings, drawings, songs, plays, and stories
  • Recorded or transcribed speeches
  • Interviews with participants or witnesses or people who lived during a particular time period (e.g., World War II)
  • Published results of research or scientific experiments
  • Published results of clinical trials
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Dissertations
Secondary Source
  • Biographies
  • Histories
  • Literary Criticism
  • Book, Art, and Theater reviews
  • Newspaper articles that interpret
  • Publications about the significance of research or experiments
  • Analysis of a clinical trial
  • Review of several experiments or trials
  • Literature Review

Adapted from guides available from the Ithaca College Library, KU Writing Center, and BMCC Library