For some research projects you may be required to use primary sources. How can you identify these?
A primary source provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event, object, person, or work of art. Primary sources include historical and legal documents, eyewitness accounts, results of experiments, statistical data, pieces of creative writing, audio and video recordings, speeches, and art objects. Interviews, surveys, fieldwork, and Internet communications via email, blogs, listservs, and newsgroups are also primary sources. In the natural and social sciences, primary sources are often empirical studies—research where an experiment was performed or a direct observation was made. The results of empirical studies are typically found in scholarly articles or papers delivered at conferences.
Secondary sources describe, discuss, interpret, comment upon, analyze, evaluate, summarize, and process primary sources. Secondary source materials can be articles in newspapers or popular magazines, book or movie reviews, or articles found in scholarly journals that discuss or evaluate someone else's original research.
Primary sources enable you to get as close as possible to understanding the lived experiences of others and discovering what actually happened during an event. However, what constitutes a primary or secondary source depends on the context in which it is being used. For example, David McCullough’s biography of John Adams could be a secondary source for a paper about John Adams, but a primary source for a paper about how various historians have interpreted the life of John Adams. When in doubt, ask a librarian for assistance!
Reviewing primary source material can be of value in improving your overall research paper because they:
- Are original materials,
- Were created from the time period involved,
- Have not been filtered through interpretation or evaluation by others, and
- Represent original thinking or experiences, reporting of a discovery, or the sharing of new information.
Examples of primary documents you could review as part of your overall study include:
- Artifacts [e.g. furniture or clothing, all from the time under study]
- Audio recordings [e.g. radio programs]
- Internet communications on email, listservs, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms
- Interviews [e.g., oral histories, telephone, e-mail]
- Newspaper articles written at the time
- Original Documents [i.e. birth certificate, will, marriage license, trial transcript]
- Personal correspondence [e.g., letters]
- Proceedings of meetings, conferences and symposia
- Records of organizations, government agencies [e.g. annual report, treaty, constitution, government document]
- Survey Research [e.g., market surveys, public opinion polls]
- Transcripts of radio and television programs
- Video recordings
- Works of art, architecture, literature, and music [e.g., paintings, sculptures, musical scores, buildings, novels, poems]
Bahde, Anne. Using Primary Sources: Hands-On Instructional Exercises. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2014; Brundage, Anthony. Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2013; Daniels, Morgan and Elizabeth Yakel. “Uncovering Impact: The Influence of Archives on Student Learning.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 39 (September 2013): 414-422; Krause, Magia G. “Undergraduates in the Archives: Using an Assessment Rubric to Measure Learning.” The American Archivist 73 (Fall/Winter 2010): 507-534; Rockenbach, Barbara. “Archives, Undergraduates, and Inquiry-Based Learning: Case Studies from Yale University Library.” The American Archivist 74 (Spring/Summer 2011): 297-311; Weiner, Sharon A., SammieMorris, and Lawrence J.Mykytiuk. "Archival Literacy Competencies for Undergraduate History Majors." The American Archivist 78 (Spring/Summer 2015): 154-180.