Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Donald R. Welter Library

How-To Guides:
Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary Sources

Primary sources are the “materials on a topic upon which subsequent interpretations or studies are based, anything from firsthand documents such as poems, diaries, court records, and interviews to research results generated by experiments, surveys, ethnographies, and so on.”

Primary sources are records of events as they are first described, without any interpretation or commentary. They are also sets of data, such as census statistics, which have been tabulated, but not interpreted. As to the format, primary source materials can be written and non-written, the latter including sound, picture and artifact.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources, on the other hand, offer an analysis or a restatement of primary sources. They often attempt to describe or explain primary sources. Some secondary sources not only analyze primary sources, but use them to argue a contention or to persuade the reader to hold a certain opinion.

Examples of secondary sources include: dictionaries, encyclopedias, textbooks and books and article that interpret or review research works.

Discipline Primary Source Secondary Source
Art Original artwork Article critiquing the piece of art
History Slave diary Book about the Underground Railroad
Literature Poem Essay on a particular genre of poetry
Political Science Treaty Essay on Native American land rights
Theater Play, performance Biography of a playwright


(*Adapted from Bowling Green State University Library)