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Primary & Secondary Sources: Primary & Secondary Sources

Primary Sources

What they are

Primary sources allow researchers to get as close as possible to the topic being researched. They are documents, artifacts, firsthand testimony, images, and more, that provide direct evidence of the topic involved. If you're researching a historical event, a primary source is created by someone who was there, and directly experienced the event. A primary source could also be something like a song, movie, poem, or speech. In these cases, it's a primary source because it's an original work created by someone, and not an imitation, replication, or interpretation of an original work.
As an example, a diary from an immigrant from Ireland to the United States documenting their travel experiences from Ireland to New York City would be considered a primary source for research on Irish immigration to New York City. A book written by a scholar that analyzes the various writings of Irish immigrants and interprets the experience of those immigrants is a secondary source for the same research topic.

Primary source characteristics

  • Primary sources can be first-hand accounts, observations, or analysis. They are contemporary with the events described. That means they are usually created close to the time the event occurred, though things like memoirs and interviews created by those who experienced the event can be published years later.
  • Primary sources document events, people, viewpoints of the time.
  • A primary source usually represents a single person's perspective. If you want to look at the perspective of multiple people, you can either look at additional primary sources, or use a secondary source.
  • Primary sources include the bias of the person who created the primary source. When using a primary source you need to be aware of this.
  • Reproductions of primary sources remain primary for many research purposes. For example, if you read excerpts from the diary of an Irish immigrant in a secondary source, those excerpts are still considered a primary source.

Examples of Primary Sources

 Research Data
 Art Objects
 Audio/Video Recordings
 Poll Results
 Clothes, costumes, furniture

Secondary Sources

What they are

Secondary sources take primary sources and do something with/to them, such as analyze, assess or interpret, in order to research an historical event, era, or phenomenon. The general idea is that a secondary source attempts to explain a primary source, or uses primary sources to form an argument, contention, or theory. If a secondary source is looking at something like literature or a poem (both considered primary sources), they may review or a critique them. Secondary sources are usually written well after the events that are being researched occurred, though it is possible for someone who experienced the event firsthand may write about ti many years later. In that case their writing would still be considered a primary source.

Secondary source characteristics

  • Secondary sources often quote or draw from primary sources. They may cover the same topic, but they add a layer of analysis, interpretation, critique, that the primary source does not provide.
  • If the secondary source is utilizing primary sources that are experiments or studies they may provide additional analysis of the results, or combine the results of multiple experiments and studies to draw larger conclusions.

Examples of Secondary Sources

 Movie review
 Poetry critique
  Research meta-analysis