What are Primary and Secondary Sources?

Hi, and welcome to this video on primary and secondary sources! Determining the difference between primary and secondary sources can be difficult. In essence, primary sources are objects (usually written works) created during a specific time that relate to the specific time or topic that you are studying. A novel or an autobiography would be examples of this. Secondary sources, on the other hand, are texts that analyze, interpret, or comment on primary sources. However, this is only a quick definition of primary sources. As you will see later in the video, what is considered a primary or secondary source can shift depending on context. First, let’s define primary and secondary sources more fully and look at some examples before taking a look at how to find them.

As previously suggested, primary sources are sources that were created during a specific time and discuss that specific time (or topic during that time) and secondary sources comment in some way on these sources; in many cases, secondary sources are meant to be persuasive. Before going too far, let’s look at a list of sources considered primary and secondary:

Primary sources include:

  • Creative works, such as poems, novels, and plays
  • Diaries and correspondence
  • Original documents (like birth certificates)
  • Autobiographies
  • Manuscripts
  • Speeches
  • Constitutions and laws
  • Government documents
  • Or a journal article with new findings

Secondary sources include:

  • Criticisms of art, whether it be literature, film, or music
  • Journal articles containing analysis or commentary
  • Textbooks
  • Encyclopedias
  • Interpretive or analytical books
  • Or political commentary

Keep in mind that these lists are only partial. Also, there is a good chance that the sources you will be focusing on in your studies are literary or historical. For instance, it is quite common to be assigned essays about literary works—poems or novels, for example—in which you have to use secondary sources (usually scholarly journal articles) to support your claims about the literary work in question.

Things can start to get a little more complicated here. Sometimes primary sources can be considered secondary sources, and some secondary sources can be read as primary sources. It all depends on the context and purpose for which a source is being used. For example, an ancient encyclopedia might be studied as a primary source if it is being analyzed and interpreted in order to learn about the era of its publication. However, encyclopedias usually are considered secondary sources. Don’t worry about this too much, though. The primary/secondary source distinction is useful about 99% of the time; just try to keep in mind that not every source can be pigeonholed into just one category.

Now that we know what our sources are, let’s look at how you go about finding them in the first place. Finding sources is often a hassle. It can be anxiety-producing, and many students simply do not know where to begin their search. The best place to begin looking is the library; however, in this instance “the library” can mean two things: It could mean the actual brick-and-mortar building or it could mean an online database. The second option is much more user-friendly for citizens of the 21st century and can be accessed through your library’s website. If you are attending a university, then try to access the online database through your school’s library homepage. Many public libraries and secondary school libraries also offer this option. Search terms will vary between websites, so it is important to experiment with search criteria. For instance, you may find a search filter that allows you to search for only “primary sources.”

As for secondary sources, consider using databases that are commonly subscribed to by educational institutions—EBSCO, JSTOR, and ProQuest to name a few. There are countless other databases with different specializations ranging from literature to law—consider searching through the different databases related to your subject in order to find a useful database for you. Ultimately, databases are full of useful secondary sources.

If you are unable to access these types of databases, another option for pursuing secondary sources is Google Scholar. Google Scholar is essentially a free-to-use online database of scholarly sources. Though many sources are trapped behind a paywall, this option also provides many free-to-read sources.

If you prefer a non-internet approach, consider strolling through the library for books on your chosen topic. And, of course, when in need, ask a librarian for help. They are experts at determining primary and secondary sources and will be more than willing to point you in the right direction.

Now let’s take a look at some helpful tips to remember as you start putting together your sources:

  1. Aim to use credible sources – In terms of secondary sources, articles published in scholarly journals and scholarly books work best and are considered the most reliable. This is due to the fact that they have been peer reviewed by experts in the field before publication. Personal blogs and Wikipedia are usually not considered credible sources. Remember anyone can post whatever they like on personal blogs; Wikipedia is open to be edited by anyone, so it also often lacks credibility. It’s also a good idea to ask your teacher or professor about what they accept as primary and secondary sources. Instructors have different ideas for what they consider a credible source. When in doubt, ask for clarification.
  2. Remember that not all sources are equal – Certain sources like newspaper editorials or brief news stories about a topic do not hold as much credibility as scholarly articles and books. First, editorial pieces in newspapers or on websites are often biased and go through little peer review or vetting before publication. Writers of such pieces often have a political axe to grind or, perhaps worse, are themselves misinformed about the topic. Newspaper articles, though useful in some cases, usually offer only a very shallow reading of an event or topic, which doesn’t allow you to get all of the necessary information.
  3. Aim for sources closest to the original – What does this mean? Simply put: If you want to discuss a particular writer’s work, whether it be a primary or secondary source, try to find the original source. For example, instead of using a summary from Wikipedia or CliffNotes, aim to familiarize yourself with a primary source. This is important because sources that summarize other sources are removed from the source itself—you never know when a bias can enter the equation or, even worse, false information. If you find a particularly interesting argument used in a secondary source, aim to find where that argument was originally published. Many scholarly sources rely on arguments from previous secondary sources. Therefore, Johnny Smith may use an argument initially created by Jane Johnson in an article he’s written. Instead of relying on Johnny Smith’s interpretation or summary of Jane Johnson’s work, try to go back and find Jane Johnson’s original source. This is important because it is possible that Johnny Smith is himself misreading or editorializing Jane Johnson’s argument—therefore, reading the original source prevents the possibility of interpretational bias. In the end, the further away from the original source you go, the higher the chances that the meaning of the original has been twisted or misinterpreted, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
  4. Lastly, who is the publisher? – Anyone with enough money can start a publishing house. However, certain publishers have more credibility than others. In particular, look for works published by university presses. Though these are not the only credible sources, they are usually a safe bet. When in doubt, consider searching for the publisher’s website online in order to get a feel for its credibility.

Finally, before we go, let’s look at a review question:

Which of the following is not a primary source?

  1. A novel
  2. A textbook
  3. A diary
  4. A speech

The correct answer is B, a textbook. A textbook is a secondary source, because it is expounding upon/commenting on other sources.

I hope this review was helpful! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!

Frequently Asked Questions


What is a primary source?


Primary sources are original, first-hand accounts of an event or topic. A primary source could be an image, a newspaper article, or a historical artifact.


What is a secondary source?


A secondary source gives second-hand information to the reader. Books, textbooks, documentaries, encyclopedias, essays, and reviews that evaluate art can all be considered examples of secondary sources.


What is the difference between primary and secondary sources?


Primary sources share first-hand knowledge and evidence to support the text. Interviews, statistics, and research data are all examples of primary sources. Secondary sources differ from primary sources by offering second-hand information to the reader. Primary sources are often more reliable as resources because they rely on direct evidence about the person, place, event, or activity being researched.


How do you cite a primary source?


Generally, citations include title, date, location, collection numbers, authors, websites, date, reference URL, and descriptions. Details are determined by the writing style you wish to use (APA, MLA, Chicago Manual of Style, etc.).


Is a newspaper a primary source?


Yes. Newspapers are considered to be examples of both primary and secondary sources.


Is an interview a primary source?


Generally, yes. An interview is a primary source if the person being interviewed experienced the topic or event first-hand.


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by Mometrix Test Preparation | This Page Last Updated: July 8, 2022