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.
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|
|caricatures and cartoons||interviews||songs and music|
|comic books, strips||notebooks, sketchbooks||statistics|
|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
To search for interviews, personal accounts, and letters
To search for pictorial works
To search for commercial and advertising art