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Introduction to Primary Source Research

Basic information on doing research using primary sources


Letter from Carleton Watkins to George DavidsonPrimary Source

A primary source is an eyewitness account of an event or data obtained through original statistical or scientific research. 

What are some examples of primary sources?

  • Diaries
  • Letters
  • Speeches
  • Photographs
  • Official records (government reports, transcripts, court records, death certificates, etc.)
  • Contemporary news reports (newspapers, telecasts, radio addresses, etc.)
  • Maps
  • Interviews
  • Statistics
  • Polls and Public Opinion Data
  • Laws, statutes, hearings


Secondary Source

A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may include pictures of primary sources or quotes from them. Some types of secondary sources include: journal/magazine articles, textbooks, commentaries, and encyclopedias.



Newspapers may be either primary or secondary. Most articles in newspapers are secondary, but reporters may be considered as witnesses to an event.  Any topic on the media coverage of an event or phenomenon would treat newspapers as a primary source. 


Examples of Primary Sources by Discipline

Discipline Primary Source Secondary Source
Art Sketch Book Conference proceedings on French Impressionism
History Emancipation Proclamation (1863) Book on the anti-slavery struggle
Journalism Interview Biography of publisher Katherine Meyer Graham
Law Legislative Hearing Law review article on anti-terrorism legislation
Literature Novel Literary criticism on The Name of the Rose
Music Score of an opera Biography of composer Georges Bizet
Political Science Public Opinion Poll Newspaper article on campaign finance reform
Rhetoric Speech Editorial comment on Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech
Sociology Voter Registry Ph.D. dissertation on Hispanic voting patterns


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