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Introduction to Primary Source Research: What is a primary source?

Basic information on doing research using primary sources


Primary 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

Examples of primary sources by discipline



Primary Source

Secondary Source


sketch book

conference proceedings on French Impressionism


Emancipation Proclamation (1863)

book on the anti-slavery struggle



biography of publisher Katharine Meyer Graham


legislative hearing

law review article on anti-terrorism legislation



literary criticism on The Name of the Rose


score of an opera

biography of composer Georges Bizet

Political Science

public opinion poll

newspaper article on campaign finance reform



editorial comment on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech


voter registry

Ph.D. dissertation on Hispanic voting patterns




Carleton Watkins Letter

Letter from Carleton Watkins to George Davidson dated July 14, 1879

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