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Intro to Library Research: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

This guide is a starting point for doing research at Wardman Library, finding and evaluating scholarly resources, and getting additional writing help.

What is a Primary Source?

A primary source is a document (book, artifact, object, etc) that was written or created during the event you are studying. These sources provide you as a researcher with first-hand accounts of events, places, or people.

Examples of primary sources include:

  • personal journals, diaries, and letters
  • speeches
  • autobiographies and interviews
  • newspapers and news film coverage
  • official records
  • creative works like poetry, art, textiles, or architecture from the time period you are studying

What is a Secondary Source?

Secondary sources interpret, summarize, or analyze primary sources and are one step removed from the event your are researching. Often, secondary sources are written/produced by people who did not experience the event your are studying first-hand.

Examples of secondary sources inlclude:

  • a book about the Civil War
  • an critical analysis of a poem
  • an introductory chemistry textbook
  • a current magazine or newspaper article about the JFK assassination
  • a reproduction of a famous artwork

The Eye of the Beholder...

Some items can be both primary and secondary sources depending on how you use them in your research. If you are studying the Civil War, then scholarly articles written in the 20th and 21st Century would be considered secondary sources. However, if you are studying the history of Civil War scholarship, then those same items would be considered primary resources.

When in doubt, ask a libriarian!

Primary vs. Secondary Sources Video

Primary vs. Secondary Sources Tutorial

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