This guide explains what primary and secondary sources are, and gives some examples to help you select materials for your assignments.
A primary source provides first-hand information on the topic. The author personally participated in the event under discussion, such as a science experiment, a humanitarian mission, or the writing of a novel. The work has not been changed or analyzed by another person or organization.
Primary sources include:
- Original research – results of experiments, interviews, questionnaires, studies, surveys, archaeological digs
- Personal works – diaries, identification papers, journals, letters, memoirs and autobiographies (not biographies), speeches, theses (reporting original research)
- Government records – Parliamentary proceedings (Hansard), bills, acts, treaties, census data, court transcripts
- Corporate records – account books, e-mails, invoices, purchase orders, minutes, annual reports
- Works of literature – novels, plays, poetry, short stories
- Art and artefacts – paintings, sculptures, photographs, coins, objects
- Journal articles reporting original research (see first bullet above)
- Original audio and video recordings – feature films, news footage, performances
- Music – notated (print), recorded
- Other – advertisements, data files, maps, newspaper reports “from the field,” patents, posters, and public opinion polls
Secondary sources present an argument, interpretation, conclusion, or summary based upon information found in primary sources. In other words, the authors gained their information second hand.
Secondary sources include:
- Biographies (not autobiographies)
- Books (textbooks, literary criticism)
- Editorials and commentaries
- Journal articles (not reporting original research)
- Theses (not reporting original research)
Examples for Various Subjects and Disciplines
- Primary source: Export company’s annual report
- Secondary source: Book on profits of Canadian export companies
- Primary source: Huckleberry Finn
- Secondary source: Book review of Huckleberry Finn
- Primary source: Michaelangelo’s David
- Secondary source: Book describing and illustrating famous sculptures
- Primary source: Mozart’s Requiem
- Secondary source: Musical analysis of Mozart's Requiem
- Primary source: Findings of an MRI study at UNB
- Secondary source: Article promoting advances in MRI research at Canadian universities
- Primary source: UBC survey of drug addicts and their activities
- Secondary source: Book about drug addiction in Canada
- Primary source: A diary kept by parents of a special-needs child
- Secondary source: Guidebook for parents of special-needs children
A Word of Caution
How you use an item may determine whether it is a primary or a secondary resource. In order to categorize it, think about how the resource is relevant to your work.
- A history textbook from 1867 might be used as a primary source for a study of confederation-era textbooks (since it is one), or as a secondary source for an essay on the history of Ancient Greece (since that’s what it’s about).
- A documentary on the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) might be used for its primary material (interviews with soldiers), or its secondary material (the voice-over commentary).
Primary Source Databases
The Mount Allison libraries subscribe to dozens of databases that have primary material. Go to the A-Z List of Databases page on our web site, then select "Primary Sources" from the "All Database Types" dropdown list in the centre box.
For More Information on Primary and Secondary Sources:
Ask a librarian or go to:
Finding Historical Primary Sources: Getting Started (University of California, Berkeley) http://guides.lib.berkeley.edu/subject-guide/163-Finding-Historical-Primary-Sources
Finding Primary Sources (University of Toronto, Scarborough) https://guides.library.utoronto.ca/c.php?g=250552&p=1671079
Lester, James D., and James D. Lester, Jr. Writing Research Papers: A Complete Guide. 10th ed. New York: Longman, 2002. Call number: REF LB 2369.L4 2002
Primary sources (University of British Columbia) http://guides.library.ubc.ca/primarysources
Primary sources for humanities (Monash University) https://guides.lib.monash.edu/primary-sources/home
Updated September 2018 / EM