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Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary Sources

A primary source provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event, object, person, or work of art. Primary sources include historical and legal documents, eyewitness accounts, results of experiments, statistical data, pieces of creative writing, audio and video recordings, speeches, and art objects. Interviews, surveys, fieldwork, and Internet communications via email, blogs, listservs, and newsgroups are also primary sources. More examples of primary sources:

  • Autobiographies and memoirs
  • Diaries, personal letters, and correspondence
  • Interviews, surveys, and fieldwork
  • Internet communications on email, blogs, listservs, and newsgroups
  • Photographs, drawings, and posters
  • Works of art and literature
  • Books, magazine and newspaper articles and ads published at the time
  • Public opinion polls
  • Speeches and oral histories
  • Original documents (birth certificates, property deeds, trial transcripts)
  • Research data, such as census statistics
  • Official and unofficial records of organizations and government agencies
  • Artifacts of all kinds, such as tools, coins, clothing, furniture, etc.
  • Audio recordings, DVDs, and video recordings
  • Government documents (reports, bills, proclamations, hearings, etc.)
  • Patents
  • Technical reports
  • Scientific journal articles reporting experimental research results

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources describe, discuss, interpret, comment upon, analyze, evaluate, summarize, and process primary sources. Secondary source materials can be articles in newspapers or popular magazines, book or movie reviews, or articles found in scholarly journals that discuss or evaluate someone else's original research. More examples of secondary sources:

  • Bibliographies
  • Biographical works
  • Reference books, including dictionaries, encyclopedias, and atlases
  • Articles from magazines, journals, and newspapers after the event
  • Literature reviews and review articles (e.g., movie reviews, book reviews)
  • History books and other popular or scholarly books
  • Works of criticism and interpretation
  • Commentaries and treatises
  • Textbooks
  • Indexes and abstracts

-From Ithaca College Library (

Finding Primary Sources

PICRYL logoPICRYL is the largest search engine for public domain images, documents, music, and videos. PICRYL makes world's curated public domain media collections searchable and readily available anywhere, anytime, on any device. Search millions public domain images from Library of Congress, NASA, The Internet Archive and hundreds of other sources.
Digital PubDigital Public Library of America logolic Library of America provides users access to a variety of collections including museums, library, and other historical depositories. All material is free and immediately available in digital format. Their Primary Source Sets provide primary source collections exploring topics in history, literature, and culture.
World Digital Library is a project of the U.S. Library of Congress and in cooperation with libraries, archives, museums, educational institutions, and international organizations from around the world. The collection includes books, manuscripts, maps, newspapers, journals, prints and photographs, sound recordings, and films. Items can be browsed by place, time, topic, type of item, language, and contributing institution.
  • Bowling Green State University Primary Sources LibGuide: The librarians at BGSU have compiled an amazing collection on online digital archives from various institutions around the country. HOW TO USE IT: Choose the tab at the top of the page that corresponds to the century you are researching. Browse the lists of archives for sites related to your topic.
  • Spartacus Educational: This online collection of free educational material about history includes links to some primary documents. Contains many images, political cartoons, and other graphic resources, as well as excerpted primary sources. HOW TO USE IT: Search for your topic and go to the bottom of the article to find links to primary sources. If there are excerpts of primary source material, use that information to perform Google searches to find the material online. Look for sites that might be connected to archives or libraries.
  • Yale Law School: The Avalon Project: Digital historical documents pertaining to the areas of law, government, and diplomacy. HOW TO USE IT: Browse by century or use the search box to search for specific, people, events, or geographical locations.
  • LIFE Magazine Photo Archive: An onlin e collection from LIFE magazine spanning from the 1860s to present day. HOW TO USE IT: Search for people, events, or topics.
  • Fordham University's Internet History Sourcebooks Project: Various online texts collected by Fordham University chronicling a variety of historical topics and events throughout the world. HOW TO USE IT: Browse the time periods or search for your topic using the search box. Note that some links may be broken.