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Introduction to Primary Source Research

Contains tips and tools for beginnnng research with primary sources.


Research with primary sources and research in archives requires a different set of skills than traditional research. This guide contains some fundamental information that may clarify steps within early primary source research.

Identifying a Primary Source

What is a primary source?

A primary source records direct firsthand evidence about an event, object, person, or work of art, as it is happening. Typically, primary sources are contemporary to the events and people they describe and contain little or no revisions after their creation.

Primary sources can exist in a variety of formats, some examples include:

personal correspondence and diaries, newspaper ads and stories autobiographies, laws and legislative hearings, works of art and literature, newspaper ads and stories, speeches and oral histories, audio and video recordings, photographs and posters, coins and tools, census or demographic records, plant and animal specimens, research-based scholarly journal articles

What is a secondary source?

Secondary sources are often based on primary source material but contain information that has been interpreted, commented, analyzed or processed in a manner that provides additional information to the original source.

Examples of secondary sources include;

Textbooks, histories, biographies, literary criticism, political analyses, articles that interpret or review other works 

What is a tertiary source?

Tertiary sources identify, abstract, organize, or compile other sources. They are usually nor attributed to a specific author or authors.

                        Examples of Tertiary sources include:

Dictionaries or encyclopedias (may be secondary, depending), almanacs, guidebooks, manuals, any source that indexes and abstracts sources