Research Help

Research Help Tutorial:
What Are Primary Resources?

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Primary Sources

Primary sources (simple explanation) are first-hand evidence found in documents, recordings, or physical objects. In literature, primary sources are poems, novels, and short stories as they come from the pens of their authors. In history, primary sources are diaries, memoirs, oral interviews, newspapers, or census records that describe the events of the day.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources describe, summarize, dissect, analyze, and give context to primary sources. These books and journal articles (for the most part) are a scholar’s interpretation of a literary work, a historian’s analysis of an past event, and a scientist’s view of how the physical or social world works, and why it should all be important to us now.

EXAMPLE: History

Primary source: Jefferson, Thomas. Inaugural Speeches of Thomas Jefferson, Esq. Boston: S.G. Snelling, 1809.

EXAMPLE: Literature

Primary source: Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1937. [A Novel]


Primary source: Van Gogh’s Cafe Terrace at Night [a painting, September 1888]

EXAMPLE: Social Sciences

Primary source: Census 2000 Gateway

EXAMPLE: Science

Primary source: Curie, Marie. “Les mesures en radioactivité et l’étalon du radium.” Journal de physique 2 (1912):715.

Primary Sources: Advanced Definition

Primary sources are those documents, experiments, or objects that a researcher analyzes to answer a question or hypothesis. Actually, anything can potentially be a primary source. EXAMPLE: Applying the Advanced definition of Primary Source A researcher is interested in how students learned about ethnic minorities in the 1930s. To answer the question, the researcher has decided to analyze high school social studies textbooks between 1930 and1940. The primary source is: high-school textbooks!