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Primary Sources

Primary sources provide direct, first-hand evidence of the period or event being researched; as such they can provide crucial insight into how people across history and cultures lived and viewed the world.  Most primary sources are created at the time the event happened or soon after, but can also include autobiographies and oral histories recorded years later. In the sciences and social sciences, uninterpreted data sets and reports on experimental findings are primary sources. Primary source materials exist in nearly every format including books, newspapers, manuscripts, visual material, objects, and audio and video recordings. 

Secondary sources summarize, analyze and interpret primary sources.  Sometimes it can be difficult to determine if a resource is primary or secondary because a source can fall into both categories.  Determining if a source is primary or secondary depends on how you are going to use it.  For example, Ken Burns' documentary film The Roosevelts can be used as secondary source for research about the Roosevelt family, but it could also be used as a primary source in researching the craft of documentary filmmaking.  Click over the remaining tabs for more information on primary and secondary sources by field of study. 

Primary Sources in Art include:

  • Paintings, sculpture, and other works of art 
  • Buildings, architectural plans or models
  • Motion pictures
  • Photographs, prints, posters


Primary Sources in Literature include:

  • Creative works such as poems, short stories, novels
  • Interviews with author being researched
  • Letters, diaries, manuscripts
  • Oral histories or written personal accounts


Primary Sources in the Natural Sciences include:

  • Research reports, field notes, specimen samples
  • Reports of factual, not interpreted or analyzed data
  • Journal articles with results of experimental data
  • Technical reports
  • Patents

Secondary Sources in the Natural Sciences include:

  • Material discussing the significance or analysis of research
  • Editorials, perspectives, letters to the editor

Primary Sources in Psychology include:

  • Case studies & clinical case reports
  • Follow-up studies & treatment outcome studies
  • Experimental replication
  • Longitudinal Studies


Primary Sources in History include:

  • Historical artifacts & documents (ie. the United States Constitution, the Magna Carta, etc.)
  • Government reports
  • Speeches
  • Maps
  • Organizational records
  • New reports (broadcasts or articles)


Primary Sources in Sociology & the Social Sciences include:

  • A political, social, or economic theory
  • Datasets
  • Experimental results

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