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ENC 1101: English Composition I (Norton)

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources are materials created at the time of the topic you are researching, or by an eyewitness to the topic. Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period. They are not commentary about your topic, but are the topic you are commenting about. 

Watch this brief video for help differentiating between primary and secondary sources:


It is not always easy to determine if a source is primary or secondary according to the definitions provided. Sources are characterized by their content, regardless of their format. In other words, you must think about the information itself rather than the "package" it comes in. Additionally, a source can be both primary and/or secondary, depending on the context in which it is used. Primary sources can often be found embedded within secondary sources. Furthermore, the definition may vary depending upon the academic discipline.

Examples by Subject

Primary Source
Secondary Source
Art original painting biography of an artist
Business company's monthly financial report article about inflation
History diary of a civil war soldier book about the Civil War
Legal Studies transcript of a court decision legal treatise
Literature novel critical review of a novel
Political Science Treaty of Versailles essay about the end of World War I
Psychology journal article reporting results of a study journal article on psychological theorems
Science biological field notes biology textbook