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Know the Difference Between Primary and Secondary Sources

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Primary Sources

A primary source is an original object or document that is directly connected to what is being studied. Some people call them the 'raw materials' or first-hand information on a given topic. Some examples include:

  • Historical and legal documents
  • Eyewitness accounts
  • Results of an experiment
  • Statistical data
  • Pieces of creative writing such as fiction or poems
  • Art objects such as paintings, photographs, or statues

Something to keep in mind is that a primary source is usually created around the same time as the topic being studied. For example, a photograph of Susan B. Anthony is a primary source. A mural of Susan B. Anthony created in 2012 is not a primary source.

Secondary Sources

A secondary source is usually something written about a primary source. They can comment on, interpret, or discuss original material. The key is that they take primary sources and do something with them. Secondary sources can be articles in newspapers or magazines, book or film reviews, or articles in scholarly journals that synthesize or evaluate the original research done by other people.

Pay particular attention when reading articles, whether they be published in a newspaper or magazine, or a scholarly journal. When an article is discussing the results of research, are they talking about research they did? Or, are they discussing the results of research conducted by other people. This makes a difference when determining whether the article is a primary or secondary source. If they are discussing the results of their own research, then the article is a primary source. However, if they are discussing the results of research conducted by other people, the article is a secondary source.

Intentions Matter

Many times, whether an object is considered primary or secondary depends on your research topic. Below is an example.

Let's say your research topic is to examine the impact of social media on the self-esteem of teenagers. A newspaper article describes research conducted by a team at Yale University examining the relationship between Facebook usage and depression among teenage girls. In this case, the newspaper article is a secondary source because they did not conduct the research themselves, they are merely relaying the results of the research to the reader. However, if your research topic is to examine media coverage of social media and it's impact on teenagers, then that same newspaper article is a primary source. Instead of relaying information, the article is a representation of the phenomena you are trying to examine.

Determining whether an object is primary or secondary can be difficult. It's also something Librarians can help you with. If you would like assistance with determining whether something is primary or secondary, or would like help locating primary or secondary sources, please Ask a Librarian for help!

Examples by Discipline


  Primary Secondary
Engineering A patent US patent database
Rhetoric & Composition Samples of college students’ writing A scholarly article about college students’ source usage 
Nursing A cohort study Reviews, systematic reviews, meta-analyses
History Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham Jail A biography about Martin Luther King, Jr.
Psychology Research results about an intervention for anxiety A magazine article about anxiety
Performing Arts Sound recording of a musical A review of a Broadway performance
Education Interviews with middle school teachers A magazine article on changes to the ACT
Political Science Government document (supreme court brief, legislation, etc.) Article on the application of the document
Literature A poem A book discussing the genre of poetry