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Primary vs Secondary Sources

Primary vs Secondary Sources

What is a primary source?

A primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. For example, if the author was present at the event, or very soon after, and the work is based on personal experience, then it is considered to be a primary source. Primary sources are factual, not interpretive.

Some types of primary sources include:

  • Original documents: Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, journals, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, proceedings of conferences, official records
  • Creative works: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art, photographs, maps
  • Relics or artifacts: Pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings
  • Examples of primary sources include:
  • The Diary of Virginia Woolf
  • The Constitution of Canada
  • A journal/magazine article reporting new research, a clinical trial, or scientific discovery
  • Government records (census, marriage, military)
  • Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth”

What is a secondary source?

A secondary source interprets, analyzes or summarizes primary sources. Secondary sources are always “second hand” accounts. The author’s ideas or conclusions are based on information passed down from other sources. Secondary sources often have pictures, or quotes of primary sources in them.

Some types of secondary sources include:

  • Publications: Textbooks, histories, movies of historical events, biographies, criticisms, commentaries, encyclopedias.
  • Examples of secondary sources include:
  • A journal/magazine article which interprets or reviews previous findings on how to treat diabetes
  • An analysis and interpretation of the scientific discovery of insulin
  • An interpretation of Robert Bateman’s paintings
  • A literary criticism of “A Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood
Comparing Primary and Secondary Sources
Subject Primary Source Secondary Source
Literature "Song of Myself" (Poem) Journal article about the poem's historical importance
Psychology Results of clinical trial to treat depression by modifying diet Book about ways to treat depression in adolescence without drugs
Politics and Government Canada Census Statistics Book about suburban population growth in Canada
History Recorded interview with Pierre Elliott Trudeau Journal article about Canadian prime ministers of the 20th century
Social Science Diary of Anne Frank Book about diaries kept during WWII
Art Photographs by Yousuf Karsh Magazine article about 20th century photographers

(Source for the table:  Research Help: Primary vs. Secondary Sources)

Depending on your research topic, searching the library catalogue and the online databases may provide both primary and secondary sources.