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What are primary and secondary sources?

Last Updated: Aug 10, 2015  |  399 Views
Topics: Research FAQ

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Primary and Secondary Sources

Some assignments require students to distinguish between primary and secondary sources of information. This guide is intended to help you learn how to make this distinction, and offer tips about how to find the right kind of sources for your assignment.

What is a Primary Source?

Primary sources are documents that reflect the direct, first-hand experience of the author. Primary sources may be an original creative work, an eyewitness account of a historical event, an interview with someone speaking about their personal experiences, or even an original research study with data about the personal experiences of the participants. Examples of primary sources are novels, poems, plays, diaries, letters, memoirs, speeches, and first-hand reports of events from newspapers or news magazines.

What is a Secondary Source?

Secondary sources provide analysis or interpretation of information from documents created by other authors. Secondary sources may be a critical analysis of a novel, poem, or play; a journal article or book that uses information from many different sources; or a documentary film or radio program. Each of these sources is a step removed from personal, first-hand experience.

How Do I Find Primary Sources?

Over the years, millions of primary sources have been published in books, journals, newspapers, and other publications. These sources can be found by using the UHD Library Catalog, library databases, or library catalogs from other libraries. Start with an author search if you want novels, poems, plays, or creative works by a particular author. For primary sources on a topic, consider a keyword search using one of these search terms: sources, correspondence, personal narratives, or speeches.

These strategies can also be used to find primary sources on the Internet. To find novels, poems, or plays by a particular author, start with the advanced search in Google Book Search or visit the Online Book Page to search for free online books by author. For primary sources on a topic, use search engines like OAIster that use the same controlled indexing as library catalogs and databases. Then try searches with the terms sources, correspondence, personal narratives, or speeches.

These examples from the UHD Library Catalog show how keyword searches can be used to find primary sources:

More at

How Do I Find Secondary Sources?

The UHD Library Catalog and library databases offer thousands of secondary sources. For most topics, start with a keyword search. See the Keyword Searching guide for details about this technique. For secondary sources about an author, a person, or a creative work (novel, poem, play, etc.), it may help to limit your search to the subject of each document. Here is an example:

Select subject from the advanced keyword search drop-down menu.

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