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Primary Sources

Use this guide to help find primary sources online.

What is a primary source, anyway?

A note about journal articles

Journal articles are often classified as both primary and secondary sources.  The Method and Results sections of a paper may be considered primary information, while the Introduction, Discussion and Conclusion may be considered secondary information as the author is bringing in the work and ideas of others.


Primary Sources

A primary source is an original document or account of an event that stands on its own.  It will usually have been written or created during the time under study by firsthand observers or participants.

Examples include:

  • Published sources (in print or online) such as novels, poems, plays, data from a research study, autobiographies, and speeches. Primary sources also include eyewitness accounts in newspapers, twitter, magazines or blogs.  Other primary sources include interviews, transcripts, advertisements, maps, pamphlets, posters, laws, and court decisions.
  • Unpublished sources, such as personal letters, diaries, journals, wills, deeds, family histories, and many other sources.
  • Interviews and recordings from people with firsthand knowledge of events.
  • Visual documents and artifacts, such as photographs, films, paintings and other types of artwork, coins, clothing, tombstones, and many other things.

Secondary Sources

A secondary source is a document that interprets or analyzes primary or other secondary sources.  It is second hand information, i.e., one step removed from the event.

Examples include:

  • books such as biographies, histories, overviews, works written with the use of other sources
  • literature reviews
  • book reviews
  • journal articles (which are not primary reports of new research)
  • newspaper & magazine articles (which do not give first hand accounts)

Tertiary Sources

Tertiary sources assimilate information taken from primary and secondary sources.  The information is usually presented in an easy-to-read, or basic format.
Examples include:

  • encyclopedias (in print or online wikis)
  • fact books 
  • almanacs
  • bibliographies
  • directories
  • biographical sources (like Who's Who; biographies are secondary sources)
  • statistical summaries