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11.S188/11.S951 Racial Justice Teach-In: Primary vs. Secondary


Primary Sources are materials that contain direct evidence, first-hand testimony, or an eyewitness account of a topic or event under investigation. They can be published or unpublished items in any format (the original or a surrogate format such as a photocopy, a digital copy, a printed edition, or a microfilm edition), from handwritten letters, to objects, to the built environment.

Secondary Sources are works that analyze and interpret other sources. They use primary sources to solve research problems.

Primary vs. Secondary - The way you engage with a source determines whether it is a primary or secondary source for your project. Book reviews, for example, are typically considered secondary sources.  If the subject of your research is book reviews themselves, however, they would be primary sources for your project.

Sources:  The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, c2008; Introduction to Archival Terminology, NARA.

Types of Primary Sources

Unpublished archival materials are just one type of primary source.  In The Information-Literate HistorianJenny Presnell describes nine categories of primary sources:

  1. Public Records - census records, court records, wills, tax records, etc.
  2. Official Records - laws, civil codes, legislative hearings, treaties, etc.
  3. Personal Documents (manuscripts) - letters, diaries, oral histories, financial records, etc.
  4. Artifacts/Relics - clothing, furniture, tools, music, art, and other items people make and use
  5. Organizational Documents (archives) - meeting minutes, financial records, correspondence, etc.
  6. Images - photographs, drawings, cartoons, posters, videos, graphics, paintings, etc. (See Finding Images Guide)
  7. Architecture, City Plans, and Maps - buildings, blueprints, plans, models, etc.
  8. Media and Other Mass Communication - newspapers, magazines, journals, radio, tv, twitter, facebook, websites, etc.
  9. Literary Texts - novels, plays, poems, essays, etc.

Source:  The Information Literate Historian, 93-95.

Searching Secondary Sources to Find Archival Materials

Secondary and reference sources will not only help you put your topic in context, they will often lead you directly to archival collections.

Check the footnotes, bibliographies, and acknowledgments in books, dissertations, and other published sources for clues to other sources that might be relevant to your topic. Through this process, you may learn about cataloged and uncataloged materials held in libraries and/or private collections.

See the The Research Process and the Search Strategies tabs in this guide for tips and links to sources.