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Primary Sources

What Are Primary Sources?

A primary source is an original material created during the time under study. Primary sources can be original documents (such as letters, speeches, diaries), creative works (such as art, novels, music and film), published materials of the times (newspapers, magazines, memoirs, etc.), institutional and government documents (treaties, laws, court cases, marriage records) or relics and artifacts (such as buildings, clothing, or furniture).

Primary sources of information include:

  • literary works
  • original documents such as diaries, letters, original manuscripts
  • archival material, such as official documents, minutes, etc. recorded by government agencies and organizations
  • original research studies, also called empirical studies

Examples of primary sources include:

  • Artifacts
  • Books
  • Diaries
  • Ephemera
  • Journals
  • Ledgers
  • Maps
  • Letters
  • Manuscripts
  • Newsletters
  • Pamphlets
  • Photographs
  • Videos

      What are Secondary Sources?

      Secondary sources put primary sources in context. They comment, summarize, interpret or analyze information found in primary sources. Secondary sources are usually written by individuals who did not experience firsthand the events about which they are writing.

      Examples of secondary sources include:

      • academic books
      • biographies
      • journal articles
      • magazine articles
      • dissertations
      • theses
      • essays
      • encyclopedia articles

      Primary vs. Secondary Sources


      Primary Source 

      Secondary Source 


      Slave diary

      Book about the underground railroad


      Original artwork created by an artist

      Article critiquing the piece of art


      Original poem written by a poet

      Essay on a particular genre of poetry

      Political Science

      Treaty between two governments

      Essay on Native American land rights in the US

      Science or Social Sciences

      Report of an original experiment

      Review of several studies on the same topic


      Videotape of a performance

      Biography of a playwright

      Table courtesy

      Primary vs. Secondary Sources: A Questionnaire

      Answer the questions below about your source. If you answer, “yes” to any of the following questions, there is a good chance the source is PRIMARY.

      Did the author personally witness or experience the subject in question?

      Does the author know about this subject because of personal experience rather than having just read about it?

      Is this source a diary, letter, memoir, autobiography, oral history, or interview of a person with first hand experience of the subject?

      Is this source an official document or record published at the time of the event by the government, courts, or another organization?

      Is this source a newspaper or magazine article written at the time of the event?

      Is this a creative work such as a novel, poem, art or music piece created by a firsthand witness of the subject in question?

      Is this an excerpt from a primary source, such as the constitution or a letter written by a Civil War soldier that has been imbedded in a secondary source, such as a textbook?Remember, secondary sources may include reprints of primary sources.

      Is this an artifact or relic such as jewelry, pottery, clothing, music, art, architecture, dance or weaponry that was used by witnesses of the subject in question?

      Is this a compilation of raw scientific data or statistics, such as census statistics published by the U.S. Census Bureau, that is being published without commentary or interpretation?