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Finding & Using Primary Sources

Objectives for Primary Sources Module

  • Student Employees will know what primary sources are. 
  • Student Employees will know why primary sources are important.
  • Student Employees will know how to find primary sources and what databases to use.

What Are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are documents, artifacts, or data created during the specific time period being studied. Oftentimes, documents from the first publication cycle – newspaper articles, letters, or research notes – are considered primary sources. Different academic disciplines have different definitions of what constitutes a primary source, which can make locating and identifying these sources a bit challenging.

Examples of primary sources

  • Diaries or journals (published or unpublished)
  • Letters, correspondence or other personal communications
  • Public documents such as deeds, marriages license or certificates
  • Newspapers and weekly newsmagazines (offering contemporaneous reporting of events)
  • Radio and television transcripts and wire reports
  • Speeches in print or audio formats
  • Court cases
  • Legislative reports, bills and laws
  • Census data
  • Government Documents
  • Maps
  • Art works such as paintings, prints or photographs
  • Artifacts or specimens
  • Interviews or oral histories
  • Works of literature such as fiction, poetry or drama
  • Statistics including opinion polls
  • Sacred Scriptures

What are secondary sources? Tertiary sources?

While primary sources offer a firsthand account, secondary sources are written after the fact. Secondary sources analyze, interpret, explain, or analyze a primary source, event or individual. These resources represent a second publication cycle, tasked with presenting an argument or to persuade the reader. In a sense, they’re telling you what to think. Typically, journal articles are a good example. Criticism and interpretation are key functions of Arts and Humanities secondary sources. Social Sciences secondary sources interpret raw statistical data or provide commentary on social policies. Secondary sources in the Sciences are publications that review research or abstract it.

Tertiary sources organize information with the objective of making the information more accessible. This publication cycle attempts to be factual. Reference works such as dictionaries, encyclopedias and chronologies fall into this category. Indexes and abstracts are tertiary sources designed to help locate material on a specific subject or by a certain person. Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature is a popular index often found in school and public libraries. All in all, the dividing line between secondary and tertiary sources is not always clear, the primary task usually being to single out primary source from other various source types.