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Primary vs. Secondary Sources:

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary sources are first-hand accounts or original works, such as:

  • original documents (diaries, experiments, interviews, letters, and observations)
  • creative works (art, drama, music, novels, and poetry)
  • relics or artifacts (buildings, clothing, furniture, and pottery)

Examples of Primary Sources

  • Original photographs and interviews at the Virginia Tech shootings
  • The Diary of Anne Frank and Shakespeare's 18th sonnet which begins, "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"
  • The Constitution of the United States
  • A journal article reporting new research or findings
  • John F. Kennedy's inaugural address (January 10, 1961) and Barack Obama's inaugural address (January 20, 2009)
  • Interviews with Cesar Chavez and migrant workers on their working conditions and health; pictures of them at work and at "home"; statistics
  • Medieval tapestries and ancient Greek architecture

Secondary sources are analyses and interpretations of primary sources including:

  • textbooks
  • newspaper and magazine articles
  • histories
  • criticisms
  • commentaries
  • encyclopedias

Examples of Secondary Sources

  • Commentary on the Virginia Tech shooting at the time as well as today
  • Book about the effects of WWII
  • Contradictory commentary on the quality of Shakespeare's works
  • Journal or magazine article which interprets or reviews previous findings
  • Newsweek commentary on JFK's address in the January 30, 1961 issue (p. 16) and commentary from CNN's political team on Obama's address
  • Interviews with government officials and owners of large farms on the working conditions and health of migrant farm workers
  • Watch for words indicating the material is a first-hand account, such as autobiography, memoir, diary, correspondence, or testimony.
  • Use original newspaper articles as first-hand accounts.
  • Locate materials written in the time period you are studying.
  • Conduct an interview with someone who is directly involved with the topic you are studying.
  • Contact associations active in the area you are researching.  Many associations produce literature that can be used as primary sources.
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