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Identifying Primary and Secondary Sources

Identifying Primary and Secondary Sources

The materials, evidence, or data used in your research are known as sources. As foundations of your research, these sources of information are typically classified into two broad categories— primary and secondary.

Primary Sources

primary source provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event, object, person or work of art. Characteristically, primary sources are contemporary to the events and people described and show minimal or no mediation between the document/artifact and its creator. As to the format, primary source materials can be written and non-written, the latter including sound, picture, and artifact. Examples of primary sources include:

personal correspondence and diaries
works of art and literature
speeches and oral histories
audio and video recordings
photographs and posters
newspaper ads and stories
laws and legislative hearings
census or demographic records
plant and animal specimens
coins and tools


Secondary Sources

secondary source, in contrast, lacks the immediacy of a primary record. As materials produced sometime after an event happened, they contain information that has been interpreted, commented, analyzed or processed in such a way that it no longer conveys the freshness of the original. History textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, interpretive journal articles, and book reviews are all examples of secondary sources. Secondary sources are often based on primary sources.

Primary and Secondary Sources Compared

An example from the printed press serves to further distinguish primary from secondary sources. In writing a narrative of the political turmoil surrounding the 2000 U.S. presidential election, a researcher will likely tap newspaper reports of that time for factual information on the events. The researcher will use these reports as primary sources because they offer direct or firsthand evidence of the events, as they first took place. A column in the Op/Ed section of a newspaper commenting on the election, however, is less likely to serve these purposes. In this case, a columnist’s analysis of the election controversy is considered to be a secondary source, primarily because it is not a close factual account or recording of the events.
Bear in mind, however, that primary and secondary sources are not fixed categories. The use of evidence as a primary or secondary source hinges on the type of research you are conducting. If the researcher of the 2000 presidential election were interested in people’s perceptions of the political and legal electoral controversy, the Op/Ed columns will likely be good primary sources for surveying public opinion of these landmark events.


Primary Source Searching 

The chart below illustrates possible uses of primary and secondary sources by discipline


Political Science


Primary Source
farming tools
sketch book
Data from laboratory experiments published
in a scholarly journal
Emancipation Proclamation
legislative hearing
score of an opera
public opinion poll
Data from participant surveys published
in a conference proceeding

voter registry
treatise on innovative analysis of neolithic artifacts
conference proceedings on French Impressionism
A review article on the results of many
similar lab experiments
book on the anti-slavery struggle
biography of publisher Katharine Meyer Graham
law review article on anti-terrorism legislation
literary criticism on The Name of the Rose
biography of composer Georges Bizet
newspaper article on campaign finance reform
systematic review of many studies
with similar data
editorial comment on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech
Ph.D. dissertation on Hispanic voting


Primary Source Searching in IUCAT

Use the IU online library ca

talog (IUCAT) to look for primary source materials.
Employ the Library of Congress subject heading subdivisions below to retrieve primary materials from IUCAT. These subdivisions indicate the form in which the material is organized and presented.



Subject Heading Subdivisions


caricatures and cartoons
case studies
comic books, strips
description and travel
documentary films
personal narratives
pictorial works
public opinion
songs and music


Source Search Examples


Use the subject subdivisions to build search statements that may include names, events or topics. Below is a select sample of library catalog searches. Enter these terms and search for as Subject in IUCAT. You may also wish to try search for a ALL Fields which will give you a larger but less focused result. Use the AND operator (or the + sign) to combine ideas; for example, novelists and correspondence. AND will find your search words in any section of the subject headings and will increase the likelihood that you will find relevant material



To search for document collections
feminism AND history AND sources
Roosevelt Franklin AND archives
Vietnam AND foreign relations AND sources
To search for oratory and speeches
American AND speeches
Douglass Frederick AND speeches
statesmen AND speeches


To search for interviews, personal accounts, and letters
novelists AND correspondence
rap musicians AND interviews
working class women AND diaries
To search for pictorial works
inscriptions AND Greece AND catalogs
documentary photography AND Salgado Sebastião AND exhibitions
painting AND Australian aboriginal AND exhibitions


To search for commercial and advertising art
advertising AND catalogs
advertising AND collectibles AND catalogs
commercial art AND catalogs
To search for film and documentaries
biographical films AND Mahatma Gandhi<
documentary films AND race relations
documentary films AND sports