Primary & Secondary Sources

primary source is first-hand information from a person who witnessed or participated in an event. It may also be scientific data, statistics, or an official transcript of a government proceeding. A secondary source is a description by a person usually not present at the event and relying on primary source documents for information. Secondary sources usually analyze and interpret.

The distinctions between primary and secondary sources can be ambiguous. An individual document may be a primary source in one context and a secondary source in another. Time is a defining element. For example, a recent newspaper article is not usually a primary source; but a newspaper article from the 1860’s may be a primary source for civil war research.

Some examples of primary sources:

Diaries, memoirs, letters
Official documents and records
Original manuscripts
Period newspapers
Legal cases, transcripts, minutes, hearings
Interviews, oral histories, personal narratives
Research data and reports

Do background reading in a specialized encyclopedia for your place/time period to locate key names, vocabulary or events.To locate primary sources in the library

  • Search the Library Catalog by Keyword, using a primary source format word as one term and an event or person as another term. Truncating the format word is helpful to obtain both singular and plural:
letter* and Lincoln
 diar* and Civil War
  • Find primary sources in the footnotes and bibliographies of secondary source books and articles.
  • Browse the shelves in your subject area.
  • To locate research data and reports in the sciences and social sciences, use one of the subject specific databases or indexes for that discipline.
  • Consult a reference librarian for assistance

See for an excellent discussion on reading primary and secondary sources.

For more information:

Defining Primary and Secondary Sources, by Michael Eamon, historian and archivist, Library and Archives Canada