Library:Guide to Finding Primary Sources/Definitions

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What are Primary Sources?

Primary Sources are the direct evidence or first hand accounts of events without secondary analysis or interpretation. A primary source is a work that was written or created at a time that is contemporary or nearly contemporary with the period or subject being studied.

The definition of a primary source can change depending upon the academic discipline and the context in which it is used - Humanities, Social Sciences and Sciences have unique types of materials which qualify as primary sources.

What are the Humanities, Social Sciences and Sciences?

  • The range of disciplines that make up the Humanities can vary between institutions but in general, they "investigate the human condition, using primarily analytical, critical, or speculative methods
    • The humanities include (but are not limited to) ancient and modern languages, literature, history, philosophy, religion, and visual and performing arts such as music and theatre (Canadian Federation for the Humanities & Social Sciences)"
    • Note, some disciplines are commonly considered to be part of the Humanities and the Social Sciences, such as history, law, anthropology and linguistics
  • Social Sciences refers to "fields of study that may involve more empirical methods to consider society and human behaviour including (but not limited to):
    • anthropology, archaeology, criminology, economics, education, linguistics, political science and international relations, sociology, geography, law, and psychology (ibid)"
  • The term Sciences usually refers to disciplines in the applied, natural or physical sciences such as biology, chemistry, physics, earth sciences, space sciences, medicine and other life sciences, engineering, mathematics, computer science and statistics.

What are Secondary Sources?

Secondary Sources analyze or interpret an historical event or artistic work. Secondary sources often base their theories and arguments on the direct evidence found in primary sources. A secondary work for a subject is one that discusses the subject but is written after the time contemporary with it.