Primary v. Secondary Sources

Primary source information is original material, such as a first-hand account of an event or a work of literature or art which has not been interpreted by anyone other than its creator. Common types of primary sources are diaries, letters, autobiographies, oral history interviews, speeches, organizational records, poetry, drama, sheet music, government documents, maps, artifacts, films and video, sound recordings, photographs, artwork, and natural specimens.

Secondary sources analyze and interpret primary sources, drawing upon them to explain events of the past or explore the meaning of works of art. The authors of secondary sources tend to be modern scholars or commentators rather than eyewitnesses. Typical secondary sources include scholarly books, journal articles, and textbooks.

Primary sources give you the raw data; secondary sources help you understand it.

Sample research questions and primary/secondary sources

Your research question Primary Sources Secondary sources
How did Southerners in the late 1860s react to their defeat in the Civil War? Diaries, letters, and memoirs written by those who lived through the war and its aftermath Histories and textbooks written after the 1860s
How was the loss of the Civil War portrayed to the next generation of Southerners growing up in the 1870s and 1880s? School textbooks, magazine articles, and Civil War histories published in the 1870s and 1880s Histories, articles, and textbooks written after the 1880s
How did Jane Austen view her own reputation as a novelist in Regency England? Austen's novels and personal letters Literary criticism by scholars who lived during and after Austen's time
Do modern critics agree with each other about Jane Austen's reputation as a novelist in Regency England? Modern literary criticism of Austen's works Literature reviews evaluating the current state of Austen criticism (criticism of criticism)

See the section on Primary Sources to learn where you can find them.