Research Guide: Primary Sources

This guide was created to help you learn more about primary sources

Primary Source Analysis Worksheets

Video: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Source: "Primary vs Secondary Sources" by HistoryVideos100, is licensed under a Standard YouTube License.

Learn what distinguishes primary sources from secondary sources and when to appropriately use both.

Primary Sources vs. Secondary Sources

What is a Primary Source?

  • Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence created by participants or observers of a historical event or time period.
  • Often, these materials are created at the time when the events or conditions occurred.
    However, primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs and oral histories that are written or recorded later.
  • Primary sources are characterized by their content, not their format.  Therefore, primary sources can be found:
    -  in their original form (the actual paper copy of the Declaration of Independence)
    -  published books (the Declaration of Independence reprinted in a book)
    -  in some type of digital form (the Declaration of Independence on a website).
  • Note: In the Humanities field, "primary sources" often mean the original text of the literature that is being scrutinized.
    In the Science field, "primary sources" often mean the original scholarly journal article in which a particular scientific study was published.
The following types of materials are generally considered primary sources:
  • Diaries or journals
  • Letters or other manuscripts
  • Speeches, interviews and oral histories
  • Memoirs and autobiographies
  • Photographs
  • Sound recordings
  • Video or motion picture recordings
  • Published materials from that time period (books, magazine and/or newspaper articles)
  • Government documents (census records, laws, court decisions)
  • Political cartoons
  • Original documents produced in association with the event (pamphlets, menus...etc.)
  • Objects and artifacts (bumper stickers, buttons from political elections...etc.)

What is a Secondary Source?

  • Secondary sources are publications about the event and are written or produced by groups or individuals not involved directly with the event.
  • They can be articles, books, or biographies connected with the event.
  • They are usually written by outside experts who have researched the event and its aftermath and who are reexamining, interpreting and forming their own conclusions.
The following types of materials are generally considered primary sources:
  • Encyclopedia articles
  • Books or articles about historical event that are written after the event occurs
  • Biographies

Primary or Secondary? Can you spot the difference?

Identifying primary sources

As shown in the image below, a primary source is one that has undergone scientific study or experiment. It is original research that has been complete by specialists, or experts in the field. 

  • This image shows that the journal is called "The New England Journal of Medicine" so you can expect to find medical topics discussed within, written at an academic level.
  • The image shows also the title of the article "Green Tea and the Risk of Gastic Cancer in Japan." It is a very specific study, and the highlighted sections on the image show that there is a discussion of how the original research was carried out and what the results of the study were.

(click on image to enlarge)

image of the first page of a journal article.

Identifying secondary sources

In the previous tab you were able to see an image of a primary source, a scholarly journal article discussing the health impact of green tea in relation to cancer. In the image below is a secondary source. It was written in a newspaper, "The New York Times" and does not offer scientific study or experiment. It doesn't not contain original research, nor was it written by experts in that field. Rather, as a newspaper article it was written by a journalists. 

  • Notice the title of the article: " The Claim: Green Tea Helps Prevent Cancer"
  • You can see that it just mentions research studies and some of their findings, but it doesn't include the actual research, citations, or additional info. It is very brief, and it was written with casual, easy to read language. It provides an analysis or a summary of a primary source.

(click on the image to enlarge)

image shows an article from the New York times newspaper

Searching the databases

The link below takes you to a list of databases limited by subject. What's your topic? Be sure to pick a database that covers your subject area. The descriptions for each database tells you what kind or type of article it houses. Most databases will have a variety of sources - like newspapers and magazine articles (secondary) as well as academic or scholarly journal articles (primary). After searching, you'll see a list of results and options to limit to a specific type of source.

  • If you're looking for scholarly sources, choose "academic journals" or scholarly journals" and be sure to limit to "Peer Reviewed"
  • And be sure to choose "full-text" too so you can download anything you see right away! 

Primary Source: University Yearbook

What does the yearbook reveal about political activism on college campuses?
What might it signify that free speech protests are placed under the heading "Berkeley Spirit" (p. 72)
and not under "Politics - University Style" (p. 14)?

cover of the Tyee Yearbook from 1965

"Tyee Yearbook, 1965." UW Digital Collections.,
 Accessed 1 Apr. 2020. 

Primary Source: Letter

What contributed to the massive "Dust Bowl" drought conditions in th 1930s?
What solutions were proposed?

image of a chart called "Too much cattle" showing an increase from 1980-1930s

Image taken from the "Report of the Great Plains Drought Area Committee, 1936" 

Primary Source: Interview

What did Benjamin do to German children after the war as revenge?
What does this reveal about the psychological effects of torture on Holocaust victims?

image of the words "voices of the Holocaust"

Interview with Benjamin Piskorz, Holocaust Survivor

Primary Source: Annual Report

What does the President's message reveal about how war affected the economy in the early 1950s?

(click on image to enlarge)

image of the first page of an annual report from 1951

Crown Zellerbach Annual Report 1951