What are Primary and Secondary Sources?

Primary Sources

  • WHO
    Primary sources are created, sometimes unwittingly, by observers, witnesses or recorders. They are recorded FIRST HAND, and in FIRST PERSON. A handed down story or a compilation or interpretation is not a primary source.
  • WHAT
    A primary source is testimony or direct evidence in the form of anything from documents (diaries, interviews, footage, letters, minutes, official records), to creative works (music, poetry, art, video) to artifacts (tools, pottery, furniture).
  • WHEN
    Ideally, primary sources are created at or near the time of the event or situation. But primary sources can also be created at a later date, and may be found as autobiographies, memoirs or oral histories. It is important to remember that documentation created at a much later date may be skewed due to the effects of time and me less trustworthy as evidence.
    Primary sources can be found in any format; they can be anything from loose letters to published formats or may even have been microfilmed or digitized. "Primary source" refers to the content, not the format you may find it in. Archives and special collections are rich in primary source materials.
  • WHY
    Primary sources can be created for any number of reasons. it is important to consider any motives the documentarian had in creating the source. This may reveal any bias in the material and give the material context.

Examples: Diaries, letters, notes from lab experiments, photographs, emails, maps, scrapbooks, poetry, artwork, office records, artifacts, etc.

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are created by individuals who were not direct participants in an event. For example, books on Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute history are secondary sources because the author analyzes, interprets, retells, or explains events for which he or she was not present and did not personally witness. Secondary sources help you understand a topic and give you different views of historical people, events, and occurrences.

Examples: Biographies, theses, dissertations, history Books, magazine articles, newspaper articles, journal articles, web sites, documentaries.

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