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Finding Primary Sources: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Introduction to primary sources and where to go to find them.

Why Use Primary Sources?

Research involves examining primary sources (original material) to test and validate the point of view or interpretation of the material later published as a reference work or secondary source.

A primary source is direct evidence to the event, person, or subject of research, however on its own it may be difficult to interpret.

Use primary sources to:

  • find evidence that challenge interpretations or support one scholar's interpretation over that of another,
  • write an interpretation of your own, 
  • look for more primary sources for evidence to confirm or refute your thesis.

When you present your conclusions, you will have produced another secondary source to aid others in their research.

Why Use Secondary Sources?

It is important to locate, read and refer to secondary sources in your writing.

Secondary sources:

  • provide vital background information. Having as much knowledge as possible about the text or event about which you are researching is crucial. Familiarising yourself with what has been written about your topic will allow you to write more knowledgeably,
  • inform you as to what others have said so you can avoid repeating ideas that are already out there,
  • can be used to support your ideas or to show an alternative view. You can create an argument that shows all points of view.

Primary v. Secondary

Primary Source Secondary Source

First-hand testimony created by someone who experienced the events or conditions being documented                                                         

Describes, analyzes or draws conclusions from aprimary source. Created after the event took place. Includes the benefit of hindsight.              

Original documents:   Publications:
Newspaper or magazine articles Journal articles
Books or pamplets Books
Government Documents Textbooks
Relics or Artifacts: Histories, Criticisms
Diaries, Letters, Manuscripts, Speeches, Interviews         Commentaries
Maps Encyclopedias
Archival Materials
Creative Works:
Visual materials, Art
Dramas, Poetry, Novels
Music, Sound Recordings

Source: Princeton University


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