Skip to Main Content
site header image

EN 100: Writing and Language - Waters

What Are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are documents and objects which were created at the time under study or they are original research (experiments, statistical data, scientific studies, surveys). They are different from secondary sources which are accounts, interpretations, reviews or criticism of primary sources or historical events.

-- Adapted from the Library of Congress

Primary Source Examples in the Humanities

  • Letters and diaries
  • Government documents, laws, and records
  • Interviews and oral history
  • Creative works like original music, painting, and literature
  • Photographs and recordings

Primary Source Examples in the Sciences

  • Original research articles--typically in peer-reviewed and scholarly journals
  • Results of scientific experiments and clinical trials--should typically include research methodology used

Secondary sources may include biographies, textbooks, histories, literature review articles, and criticism. They analyze, review, or interpret primary sources.

Why do I need to know the difference?

When you are doing a research project, you want to include a mix of primary and secondary sources. Your instructor wants your own original thoughts on the topic. Doing your own analysis or synthesis of primary sources will help you accomplish this and avoid the temptation to overly rely on other people's interpretation of primary sources (which can happen if you only use secondary sources).

At this same time, you do not want to only use primary sources. Using scholarly secondary sources helps you to understand the ongoing scholarly conversation around your topic and to make sure that your research is engaging with this ongoing conversation.