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American History 148

Primary vs Secondary Sources

Primary vs Secondary Sources Considerations

A primary source is an original material created during the time under study.

Primary sources can be original documents (such as letters, speeches, diaries), creative works (such as art, novels, music and film), published materials of the times (newspapers, magazines, memoirs, etc.), institutional and government documents (treaties, laws, court cases, marriage records) or relics and artifacts (such as buildings, clothing, or furniture).

Primary sources of information include:

  • literary works
  • original documents such as diaries, letters, original manuscripts
  • archival material, such as official documents, minutes, etc. recorded by government agencies and organizations
  • original research studies, also called empirical studies

Examples of primary sources include:

  • Artifacts
  • Books
  • Diaries
  • Ephemera
  • Journals
  • Ledgers
  • Maps
  • Letters
  • Manuscripts
  • Newsletters
  • Pamphlets
  • Photographs
  • Videos

Secondary sources put primary sources in context.

They comment, summarize, interpret or analyze information found in primary sources. Secondary sources are usually written by individuals who did not experience firsthand the events about which they are writing.

Examples of secondary sources include:

  • academic books
  • biographies
  • journal articles
  • magazine articles
  • dissertations
  • theses
  • essays
  • encyclopedia articles

If you are uncertain about whether or not a source is primary or secondary, ask yourself the following questions. If you answer, “yes” to any of them, there is a good chance the source is PRIMARY.

  • Did the author personally witness or experience the subject in question?
  • Does the author know about this subject because of personal experience rather than having just read about it?
  • Is this source a diary, letter, memoir, autobiography, oral history, or interview of a person with first hand experience of the subject?
  • Is this source an official document or record published at the time of the event by the government, courts, or another organization?
  • Is this source a newspaper or magazine article written at the time of the event?
  • Is this a creative work such as a novel, poem, art or music piece created by a firsthand witness of the subject in question?
  • Is this an excerpt from a primary source, such as the constitution or a letter written by a Civil War soldier that has been imbedded in a secondary source, such as a textbook?Remember, secondary sources may include reprints of primary sources.
  • Is this an artifact or relic such as jewelry, pottery, clothing, music, art, architecture, dance or weaponry that was used by witnesses of the subject in question?
  • Is this a compilation of raw scientific data or statistics, such as census statistics published by the U.S. Census Bureau, that is being published without commentary or interpretation?



Primary Source 

Secondary Source 


Slave diary

Book about the underground railroad


Original artwork created by an artist

Article critiquing the piece of art


Original poem written by a poet

Essay on a particular genre of poetry

Political Science

Treaty between two governments

Essay on Native American land rights in the US

Science or Social Sciences

Report of an original experiment

Review of several studies on the same topic


Videotape of a performance

Biography of a playwright