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Find Primary Sources

What is a Primary Source?

A Primary Source is an original source pertaining to an event or topic. Many primary sources have been digitized and are available through library databases and on the Internet.

Examples of Primary Sources include:

  • Letters
  • Photographs
  • Diaries
  • Interviews
  • Court Records
  • Surveys
  • Census Statistics

Why Use Primary Sources?

Is my instructor trying to make my research more difficult?

Student ask why instructors require primary sources in their research. The Library of Congress provides a good summary for the use of primary sources.

Primary sources provide a window into the past—unfiltered access to the record of artistic, social, scientific and political thought and achievement during the specific period under study, produced by people who lived during that period.

Working with primary sources can give the researcher a real sense of what it was like during the time of the author. Primary sources also:

  1. Engage students – relate in a personally to the event, promote a deeper understanding of history.
  2. Develop critical thinking skills – analyze data, find patterns, foster active reading.
  3. Construct knowledge – form reasoned conclusions, synthesize information, integrate new and existing information.

Source:  Retrieved from the Library of Congress, 

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Examples of Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary Source
Secondary Source
Original artwork
Articles critiquing or commentary discussing a piece of art
Thomas Jefferson's journal or diary
Biography of Thomas Jefferson's journal or diary
Video of a presidential speech
Article or commentary discussing a presidential speech
An article reporting on empirical research
A summary, synthesis, or critique of a number of empirical articles
An original theoretical, methodological, or conceptual report
Commentary on an article that published findings from empirical research


Note: Your textbook is not a primary source.

What is a Secondary Source?

A Secondary Source provides commentary, discussion, or analysis about a primary source.

Examples of Secondary Sources include:

  • Journal Articles
  • Books
  • Dissertations
  • Biographies

Secondary Sources can sometimes be sources of primary source data! To learn more about how these sources can be used as Primary Sources, watch the video below titled Primary and Secondary Sources.

Primary and Secondary Sources Explained

The video below can help you understand how primary and secondary sources are used, and how to identify the differences between them.

Primary and Secondary Sources [transcript] is available above the video.

Primary Data vs. Secondary Data

Primary resources and primary data are two separate pieces. If you are an undergraduate student, you most likely need to focus on finding primary resources. If you are a master's or doctoral student, you need to understand both what primary resources are AND what primary and secondary data are.

Primary Data

Data collected and used by the researcher.

  • For example, if you gather data using a survey instrument, the data you gather is primary data.
Secondary Data

Data gathered by one party, but used by a different party.

  • For example, if you use data from the Census bureau, you are using secondary data.