Primary vs. Secondary Sources


Humanities Sciences
Primary Source
  • Original, first-hand account of an event or time period
  • Usually written or made during or close to the event or time period
  • Original, creative writing or works of art
  • Factual, not interpretive
  • Report of scientific discoveries
  • Results of experiments
  • Results of clinical trials
  • Social and political science research results
  • Factual, not interpretive
Secondary Source
  • Analyzes and interprets primary sources
  • Second-hand account of an historical event
  • Interprets creative work
  • Analyzes and interprets research results
  • Analyzes and interprets scientific discoveries


Humanities Sciences
Primary Sources
  • Diaries, journals, and letters
  • Newspaper and magazine articles (factual accounts)
  • Government records (census, marriage, military)
  • Photographs, maps, postcards, posters
  • Recorded or transcribed speeches
  • Interviews with participants or witnesses (e.g., The Civil Right Movement)
  • Interviews with people who lived during a particular time (e.g., genocide in Rwanda)
  • Songs, Plays, novels, stories
  • Paintings, drawings, and sculptures
  • Published results of research studies
  • Published results of scientific experiments
  • Published results of clinical trials
  • Proceedings of conferences and meetings
Secondary Sources
  • Biographies
  • Histories
  • Literary Criticism
  • Book, Art, and Theater Reviews
  • Newspaper articles that interpret
  • Publications about the significance of research or experiments
  • Analysis of a clinical trial
  • Review of the results of several experiments or trials

Specific Examples

Primary Source Secondary Source
Literature “Song of Myself” (Poem) Journal article about the poem’s historical importance
Psychology Results of clinical trial to treat ADD by modifying diet Book about ways to treat childhood ADD without drugs
Politics and Government U.S. Census Statistics Book about suburban population changes in U.S.
History Recorded interview with Choctaw American Indian Journal article about Native Americans who served in WWII
Social Science Diary of Anne Frank Book about diaries kept during the Holocaust
Art Photographs by Diane Arbus Magazine article about 20th century female photographers

Websites of Primary Resources

The Library of Congress American Memory Project
AMP is a rich, searchable database of written and spoken words, sound recordings, still
and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience.

The Historical Text Archive
HTA is a well-designed, searchable database with three sections: full-text articles
(also includes essays and photographs), ebooks, and links to other digitized primary resources.

Digital Collections: Michigan State U. Libraries and Digital & Multimedia Center
DC is a collaborative, ongoing project to digitize selected materials from MSU Libraries’
Special Collections. Browsable collections include Africana, American Radicalism, Applied and
Life Sciences, and History and Social Sciences.

Repositories of Primary Sources

A directory of over 5,000 websites describing holdings of manuscripts, archives, rare books,
historical photographs, and other primary sources for the advanced research scholar. Includes links to libraries and other
institutions with digitized primary resources.

Using Primary Sources on the Web
A brief guide to evaluating primary internet resources with excellent examples of specific documents
and image files.

By Susan Thomas, Evening and Weekend Librarian ( )