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Food & the Environment: Primary sources

Geography 130

Primary sources?

A primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study, they were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event.

What are they? where to find them?

Some types of primary sources include:

  • ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS (excerpts or translations acceptable): Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records 
  • CREATIVE WORKS: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art 
  • RELICS OR ARTIFACTS: Pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings

Examples include:

  • Diary of Anne Frank - Experiences of a Jewish family during WWII 
  • The Constitution of Canada - Canadian History 
  • A journal article reporting NEW research or findings 
  • Weavings and pottery - Native American history 
  • Plato's Republic - Women in Ancient Greece 

Search by keyword for Primary Sources in the Library Catalog to find direct references to primary source material.
Perform a keyword search for your topic and add one of the words below: (these are examples of words that would identify a source as primary)

  • charters
  • correspondence
  • diaries
  • early works
  • interviews
  • manuscripts
  • oratory
  • pamphlets
  • personal narratives
  • sources
  • speeches
  • letters
  • documents

Primary vs. Secondary research

To find the appropriateness of a resource, it may be helpful to determine whether it is primary research or secondary research.

Primary research presents original research methods or findings for the first time.

  • A journal article, book, or other publication that presents new findings and new theories, usually with the data
  • A newspaper account written by a journalist who was present at the event he or she is describing is a primary source (an eye-witness, first-hand account), and may also be primary "research"

Secondary research does not present new research but provides a compilation or evaluation of previously presented material.
-- A scientific article summarizing research or data, such as in Scientific AmericanDiscover, Annual Review of Genetics, or Biological Reviews
-- An encyclopedia entry and entries in most other Reference books
 -- A textbook

An article in a popular magazine such as Mother Jones about the public health aspects of handgun control -- if it relies on interviews with experts and does not present any new research in the area, this article would be secondary research.
If one of the experts interviewed in the Mother Jones article published a study in JAMA (The Journal of the American Medical Association) documenting for the first time the effect that handguns have on youth mortality rates, only the JAMA article would be considered primary research.

What is a secondary source?

A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event.
Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them.

Some types of seconday sources include:

  • PUBLICATIONS: Textbooks, magazine articles, histories, criticisms, commentaries, encyclopedias 

Examples of secondary sources include:

  • A journal/magazine article which interprets or reviews previous findings 
  • A history textbook 
  • A book about the effects of WWI 
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