Identifying Primary and Secondary Sources:
A Preliminary Guide
The materials, evidence, or data used in your research are known as sources. As foundations of your research, these sources of information are typically classified into two broad categories— primary and secondary.
Primary Sources A primary source provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event, object, person or work of art. Characteristically, primary sources are contemporary to the events and people described and show minimal or no mediation between the document/artifact and its creator. As to the format, primary source materials can be written and non-written, the latter including sound, picture, and artifact. Examples of primary sources include:
- personal correspondence and diaries
- works of art and literature
- speeches and oral histories
- audio and video recordings
- photographs and posters
- newspaper ads and stories
- laws and legislative hearings
- census or demographic records
- plant and animal specimens
coins and tools
A secondary source, in contrast, lacks the immediacy of a primary record. As materials produced sometime after an event happened, they contain information that has been interpreted, commented, analyzed or processed in such a way that it no longer conveys the freshness of the original. History textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, interpretive journal articles, and book reviews are all examples of secondary sources. Secondary sources are often based on primary sources.
Primary and Secondary Sources Compared
An example from the printed press serves to further distinguish primary from secondary sources. In writing a narrative of the political turmoil surrounding the 2000 U.S. presidential election, a researcher will likely tap newspaper reports of that time for factual information on the events. The researcher will use these reports as primary sources because they offer direct or firsthand evidence of the events, as they first took place. A column in the Op/Ed section of a newspaper commenting on the election, however, is less likely to serve these purposes. In this case, a columnist’s analysis of the election controversy is considered to be a secondary source, primarily because it is not a close factual account or recording of the events.
Bear in mind, however, that primary and secondary sources are not fixed categories. The use of evidence as a primary or secondary source hinges on the type of research you are conducting. If the researcher of the 2000 presidential election were interested in people’s perceptions of the political and legal electoral controversy, the Op/Ed columns will likely be good primary sources for surveying public opinion of these landmark events.
The chart below illustrates possible uses of primary and secondary sources by discipline:
Discipline Primary Source Secondary Source Archaeology farming tools treatise on innovative analysis of neolithic artifacts Art sketch book conference proceedings on French Impressionist History Emancipation Proclamation (1863) book on the anti-slavery struggle Journalism interview biography of publisher Katherine Meyer Graham Law legislative hearing law review article on anti-terrorism legislation Literature novel literary criticism on The Name of the Rose Music score of an opera biography of composer Georges Bizet Political Science public opinion poll newspaper article on campaign finance reform Rhetoric speech editorial comment on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech Sociology voter registry Ph.D. dissertation on Hispanic voting patterns
Primary Source Searching in IUCAT
Use the IU online library catalog (IUCAT) to look for primary source materials.
Employ the Library of Congress subject heading subdivisions below to retrieve primary materials from IUCAT. These subdivisions indicate the form in which the material is organized and presented.
Subject Heading Subdivisions Anecdotes diaries pictorial works Archives documentary films portraits Biography exhibitions public opinion caricatures and cartoons interviews songs and music case studies manuscripts sources Catalogs maps speeches comic books, strips notebooks, sketchbooks statistics correspondence personal narratives statues description and travel photography
Primary Source Search Examples
Use the subject subdivisions to build search statements that may include names, events or topics. Below is a select sample of library catalog searches. Enter these terms and search for as Subject in IUCAT. You may also wish to try search for a ALL Fields which will give you a larger but less focused result. Use the AND operator (or the + sign) to combine ideas; for example, novelists and correspondence. AND will find your search words in any section of the subject headings and will increase the likelihood that you will find relevant material.
To search for document collections, Enter:
feminism AND history AND sources
Roosevelt Franklin AND archives
Vietnam AND foreign relations AND sources
- feminism AND history AND sources
To search for oratory and speeches, Enter:
American AND speeches
Douglass Frederick AND speeches
statesmen AND speeches
- American AND speeches
To search for interviews, personal accounts, and letters, Enter:
novelists AND correspondence
rap musicians AND interviews
working class women AND diaries
- novelists AND correspondence
To search for pictorial works, Enter:
inscriptions AND Greece AND catalogs
documentary photography AND Salgado Sebastião AND exhibitions
painting AND Australian aboriginal AND exhibitions
- inscriptions AND Greece AND catalogs
To search for commercial and advertising art, Enter:
advertising AND catalogs
advertising AND collectibles AND catalogs
commercial art AND catalogs
- advertising AND catalogs
To search for film and documentaries, Enter:
biographical films AND Mahatma Gandhi
documentary films AND race relations
documentary films AND sports
The following web sites offer good information on primary source research resources:
- biographical films AND Mahatma Gandhi
- Library of Congress Learning Page
- Lafayette College
- Yale University
Ask a Librarian
For further assistance with identifying primary sources for your project, you may contact a library subject specialist or ask a librarian at the reference desk. You can send a question to us at: firstname.lastname@example.org or use the Library's Ask a Librarian service for both email and instant messaging.
Written by Luis A. González
Reference Services Department
August 2002, reviewed & updated 8/2010;7/10,2014