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Primary Sources  

Guide to defining and finding primary source material on the web.
Last Updated: Aug 1, 2011 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates

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Definitions and Examples

primary source is an original object or document. Primary sources are usually defined as first hand information or data that is generated by witnesses or participants in past events. Primary sources are characterized not by their format but rather by the information they convey and their relationship to the research question. The interpretation and evaluation of these sources becomes the basis for other research.

Primary sources vary by discipline and can include historical and legal documents, eye witness accounts, results of an experiment, statistical data, pieces of creative writing, and art objects. In the natural and social sciences, the results of an experiment or study are typically found in scholarly articles or papers delivered at conferences, so those articles and papers that present the original results are considered primary sources.

secondary source is something written about a primary source. Secondary sources are completely removed in proximity from the original event, person or place but seek to provide an interpretation based on primary sources.

Secondary sources include comments on, interpretations of, or discussions about the original material. You can think of secondary sources as second-hand information. If I tell you something, I am the primary source. If you tell someone else what I told you, you are the secondard source. Secondary source materials can be articles in newspapers or popular magazines, book or movie reviews, or articles found in scholarly journals that evaluate or criticize someone else's original research. 




Primary Source

Secondary Source


Slave narratives preserved on microfilm.

The book Speaking power : Black feminist orality in women’s narratives of slavery by DoVeanna Fulton


American photographer Man Ray's photograph of a flat-iron called “Le Cadeau” (The Gift)

Peggy Schrock's article called “Man Ray's Le cadeau: the unnatural woman and the de-sexing of modern manpublished in Woman's Art Journal.


An experimental test of three methods of alcohol risk reduction with young adults, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology


A review of the literature on college student drinking intervention which uses the article in an analysis entitled: Individual-level interventions to reduce college student drinking: A meta-analytic review, published in the journal Addictive Behaviors

Political Science

U.S. Government Census data

An article which used samples of census data entitled: "Who is Headed South?: U.S. Migration Trends in Black and White, 1970-200" published in the journal Social Forces


Adapted from a guide authored by John Henderson of Ithaca College Library:


Primary vs. Secondary

The categories of primary and secondary sources are not mutually exclusive. The way way one uses or interprets an item determines whether it is a primary or secondary source. 

You can't always determine if something is primary or secondary just because of the source it is found in. Articles in newspapers and magazines are usually considered secondary sources. However, if a story in a newspaper about the Iraq war is an eyewitness account, that would be a primary source. If the reporter, however, includes additional materials he or she has gathered through interviews or other investigations, the article would be a secondary source. An interview in the Rolling Stone with Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes would be a primary source, but a review of the latest Black Crowes album would be a secondary source. In contrast, scholarly journals include research articles with primary materials, but they also have review articles that are not, or in some disciplines include articles where scholars are looking at primary source materials and coming to new conclusions.

Secondary materials may be interpreted as primary sources when their artifactual characteristics are of research value.  A book can be treated as an artifact, documents can consist of visual elements, and visual materials are often considered to be documents.

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Seán Henry
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Seán Henry PhD, MLS
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Guide to Interpreting Primary Resources

The University of Maryland Libraries had developed an excellent, interactive guide on how to interprate common types of primary sources such as correspondance, offical documents, photographs, audiovisuals, electronic records, publications, newspapers and diaries.


Ort Library Special Collections

The Special Collections and Beall Archives at Ort Library are a fantastic place to search for primary source material.  The strengths of Ort Library's Special Collections are FSU history, Western Maryland, the Jon C. Jansen Collection (science fiction books), and the John Rutledge Collection (Western Maryland coal mining industry). The Beall Archives contain the The Beall Collection, The Meyers Collection, and The Price Collection.

If you plan to use the Special Collections Room for research, please email MaryJo Price at or call 301.687.4889 for an appointment. Access to the Archives is also by appointment via phone 301.687.3014 or e-mail


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