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Resources for history coursework and research.

Primary Source vs. Secondary Source

What is a primary source?

Primary sources of materials are integral in the study of history. A primary source is a document which was written or created during the time period being researched. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event. Some types of primary sources include: 

  • Original documents: 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 of primary sources include:

  • The Diary of Anne Frank - experiences of a Jewish family during World War II
  • 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

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 secondary sources publications include: 

  • 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 World War II

Adapted from Princeton University's libguide Primary Sources: A Guide for Historians.