What are Primary and Secondary Sources?

What does primary source mean?

Primary sources give you direct access to the subject you’re researching or learning about. They contain basic information. They can give you a first-hand account of an event or period, represent original thinking, and give you new knowledge. They’re usually the center of a piece of research.

The type of primary source used depends on the topic of the research. If the issue is new and current, data from interviews and experiments you do yourself can be used as a primary resource. If it’s historical, you must gather it from people directly involved with the topic using documents and texts.

Examples of primary sources include:

  • diaries, correspondences, and ship logs;
  • creative works, such as art, film, or literature;
  • original documents, such as a birth certificate;
  • biographies and autobiographies;
  • interviews, speeches, and oral histories;
  • government data;
  • statistics;
  • research reports;
  • newspaper reports, and editorial/opinion pieces.

What are primary sources used for?

Primary sources are the foundations of original research. They help to:

  • make discoveries;
  • provide evidence for your argument;
  • and give credible information about the topic.

What does secondary source mean?

Secondary sources provide second-hand information and often offer explanations for primary sources. They analyze, interpret and restate information from primary sources. They’re generally considered to be persuasive. They use commentary, evaluation, and opinions to persuade the reader of the writer’s argument.

Examples of secondary sources include:

  • journal articles commenting or analyzing research;
  • textbooks;
  • dictionaries and encyclopedias;
  • books that interpret and explore, such as academic books;
  • biographies;
  • dissertations;
  • reviews, essays on, and criticisms of creative works, such as art, literature, and music;
  • newspaper editorial/opinion pieces.

What are secondary sources used for?

Secondary sources help to provide background information or an overview of a topic. They show how other researchers have approached, interpreted, and analyzed the case. They help to:

  • learn background information about the subject;
  • support your arguments and ideas;
  • contrast your opinions or beliefs;
  • find the information you can’t access directly.

How do you use primary and secondary sources?

In a piece of research, you would directly analyze a primary source. Secondary sources are used to test their arguments against new evidence or use their ideas to support and form your own.

Both primary and secondary sources have to be correctly cited to avoid plagiarism.

Primary and Secondary Source Examples

Primary Source Secondary Source
Novel Article or essay analyzing the novel
Painting Exhibition catalog explaining the painting
A historical figure wrote letters and diaries Biography of the historical figure
Music recordings An academic book about the musical style
Photographs of a historical event Documentary about the event
Interview with an important figure Article interpreting the interview/biography about the figure

Can a source be both primary and secondary?

Whether a source is primary or secondary depends on the topic of research. One source could be primary or secondary, depending on the angle you approach it.

For example, if the research is about the poems of Edgar Allen Poe, a biography of Poe would be a secondary source. However, if the study were about him as a historical figure, it would be a primary source.

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