Primary Sources

A primary source is a document or record containing firsthand information or original data on an event, object, person, or work of art. Primary sources are usually created by individuals who experienced the event and recorded or wrote about it. Because of this, primary sources usually reflect the viewpoint of the participant or observer. 

Examples of primary sources include:

  • Original research studies have a hypothesis, methods, results and a discussion/conclusion
  • Letters
  • Diaries
  • Memoirs
  • Speeches
  • Photographs
  • Oral Histories
  • Pamphlets
  • Newspapers written at the time of the event
  • Manuscripts
  • Official recordings of a business, including financial ledgers and labor files
  • Maps
  • Court Cases
  • Artifacts

Determining whether or not something is a primary source depends on the topic you are researching. Primary sources are almost always produced in the time period you are researching.

For example, newspaper articles can be both primary and secondary sources. A newspaper article that recounts the events of the Battle of Gettysburg would be a primary source if it was printed in July of 1863, which is when the battle occurred. A newspaper today could do a story on the Battle of Gettysburg, but because it is so far removed from the event, it wouldn't be considered a primary source.

Why are primary sources important?

Primary sources give us a unique insight into the past. 

  • Individual Significance
    • We can better understand how events influenced people's feelings and how they thought about them at the time.
  • Historical Perspective/Context
    • Primary sources can help us see history from a different perspective by revealing information about the culture at the time of the event. 
  • Causes and Consequences of Events
    • By studying primary sources, historians can get a more detailed understanding of what caused an event and the consequences of that event. The discovery of new primary sources can add dimensions to history that previously were unknown.

Secondary Sources

secondary source is one that was created later by someone that did not experience firsthand or participate in the events in which the author is writing about. Secondary sources often summarize, interpret, analyze or comment on information found in primary sources.

Common examples of secondary sources include:

  • Books
  • Biographies
  • Essays
  • Literary Criticism
  • Encyclopedias
  • Journal articles that do not present new research

Peer Reviewed, Scholarly, Academic - What does it mean?

Peer Review describes the process that an article goes through before publication. Peer review means the articles are subjected to scrutiny by other researchers before publication to ensure the highest levels of academic merit, research value and accuracy. Peer reviewed articles are often called scholarly, academic, juried or refereed.

Scholarly/Academic refers to articles written by academics and experts in the field. The intended audience for scholarly journals consists of subject specialists, researchers, faculty, and other scholars in the subject area. Scholarly/Academic articles are typically peer reviewed.

Elements of a Peer Reviewed or Scholarly Article

Articles in peer reviewed or scholarly journals are almost always reporting on original research. The article will usually have these elements:

  • Author(s) credentials or academic affiliation
  • A lengthy abstract
  • Report on the research methodology
  • Conclusion or results of the research
  • Footnotes or in-text references
  • A lengthy bibliography