Identifying Primary and Secondary Sources


Identifying Primary and Secondary SourcesIdentifying Primary and Secondary Sources:
A Preliminary Guide

The materials, evidence, or data used in your research are known as sources. As foundations of your research, these sources of information are typically classified into two broad categories— primary and secondary.

Primary Sources A primary source provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event, object, person or work of art. Characteristically, primary sources are contemporary to the events and people described and show minimal or no mediation between the document/artifact and its creator. As to the format, primary source materials can be written and non-written, the latter including sound, picture, and artifact. Examples of primary sources include:
 

  • personal correspondence and diaries
  • works of art and literature
  • speeches and oral histories
  • audio and video recordings
  • photographs and posters
  • newspaper ads and stories
  • laws and legislative hearings
  • census or demographic records
  • plant and animal specimens
  • coins and tools

    Secondary Sources
    A secondary source, in contrast, lacks the immediacy of a primary record. As materials produced sometime after an event happened, they contain information that has been interpreted, commented, analyzed or processed in such a way that it no longer conveys the freshness of the original. History textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, interpretive journal articles, and book reviews are all examples of secondary sources. Secondary sources are often based on primary sources.

    Primary and Secondary Sources Compared

    An example from the printed press serves to further distinguish primary from secondary sources. In writing a narrative of the political turmoil surrounding the 2000 U.S. presidential election, a researcher will likely tap newspaper reports of that time for factual information on the events. The researcher will use these reports as primary sources because they offer direct or firsthand evidence of the events, as they first took place. A column in the Op/Ed section of a newspaper commenting on the election, however, is less likely to serve these purposes. In this case, a columnist’s analysis of the election controversy is considered to be a secondary source, primarily because it is not a close factual account or recording of the events.
    Bear in mind, however, that primary and secondary sources are not fixed categories. The use of evidence as a primary or secondary source hinges on the type of research you are conducting. If the researcher of the 2000 presidential election were interested in people’s perceptions of the political and legal electoral controversy, the Op/Ed columns will likely be good primary sources for surveying public opinion of these landmark events.

    The chart below illustrates possible uses of primary and secondary sources by discipline:

    Discipline Primary Source Secondary Source
    Archaeology farming tools treatise on innovative analysis of neolithic artifacts
    Art sketch book conference proceedings on French Impressionist
    History Emancipation Proclamation (1863) book on the anti-slavery struggle
    Journalism interview biography of publisher Katherine Meyer Graham
    Law legislative hearing law review article on anti-terrorism legislation
    Literature novel literary criticism on The Name of the Rose
    Music score of an opera biography of composer Georges Bizet
    Political Science public opinion poll newspaper article on campaign finance reform
    Rhetoric speech editorial comment on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech
    Sociology voter registry Ph.D. dissertation on Hispanic voting patterns

    Primary Source Searching in IUCAT
    Use the IU online library catalog (IUCAT) to look for primary source materials.
    Employ the Library of Congress subject heading subdivisions below to retrieve primary materials from IUCAT. These subdivisions indicate the form in which the material is organized and presented.

    Subject Heading Subdivisions
    Anecdotes diaries pictorial works
    Archives documentary films portraits
    Biography exhibitions public opinion
    caricatures and cartoons interviews songs and music
    case studies manuscripts sources
    Catalogs maps speeches
    comic books, strips notebooks, sketchbooks statistics
    correspondence personal narratives statues
    description and travel photography  

    Primary Source Search Examples

    Use the subject subdivisions to build search statements that may include names, events or topics. Below is a select sample of library catalog searches. Enter these terms and search for as Subject in IUCAT. You may also wish to try search for a ALL Fields which will give you a larger but less focused result. Use the AND operator (or the + sign) to combine ideas; for example, novelists and correspondence. AND will find your search words in any section of the subject headings and will increase the likelihood that you will find relevant material.
     

  • To search for document collections, Enter:
    feminism AND history AND sources
    Roosevelt Franklin AND archives
    Vietnam AND foreign relations AND sources

     

  • To search for oratory and speeches, Enter:
    American AND speeches
    Douglass Frederick AND speeches
    statesmen AND speeches
  • To search for interviews, personal accounts, and letters, Enter:
    novelists AND correspondence
    rap musicians AND interviews
    working class women AND diaries
  • To search for pictorial works, Enter:
    inscriptions AND Greece AND catalogs
    documentary photography AND Salgado Sebastião AND exhibitions
    painting AND Australian aboriginal AND exhibitions
  • To search for commercial and advertising art, Enter:
    advertising AND catalogs
    advertising AND collectibles AND catalogs
    commercial art AND catalogs
  • To search for film and documentaries, Enter:
    biographical films AND Mahatma Gandhi
    documentary films AND race relations
    documentary films AND sports

    Further Information
    The following web sites offer good information on primary source research resources:
     

  • Library of Congress Learning Page
    http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/ndlpedu/lessons/psources/source.html
  • Lafayette College
    http://library.lafayette.edu/help/primary/
  • Yale University
    http://www.yale.edu/collections_collaborative/primarysources/primarysources.html
  • Ask a Librarian
    For further assistance with identifying primary sources for your project, you may contact a library subject specialist or ask a librarian at the reference desk. You can send a question to us at: libref@indiana.edu or use the Library's Ask a Librarian service for both email and instant messaging.
    Written by Luis A. González
    Reference Services Department
    Wells Library
    Indiana University
    August 2002, reviewed & updated 8/2010;7/10,2014