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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 varies depending upon the academic discipline and the context in which it is used.

In the humanities, a primary source could be defined as something that was created either during the time period being studied or afterward by individuals reflecting on their involvement in the events of that time.

In the social sciences, the definition of a primary source would be expanded to include numerical data that has been gathered to analyze relationships between people, events, and their environment. 1

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.

Examples of Primary and Secondary Sources

Subject Primary Source Secondary Source
History Soldier's diary Book on trench warfare
Art Painting or sculpture Article interpreting artwork
Literature Novel or poem Essay or criticism of work
Political Science Geneva Convention Articles on the United Nations

Formats of Primary Sources

  1. Personal records or documents: diaries, journals, letters, manuscripts, speeches, and papers
  2. Autobiographies and memoirs
  3. Government documents and records
  4. Published materials: books, magazine and journal articles, reports, newspaper articles written at the time
  5. Visual Materials: photographs, paintings, sculptures, films, video recordings
  6. Artifacts: physical objects from that time, such as clothes, furniture, toys, and buildings

Blurring the Boundary between Primary and Secondary Sources

For historians in particular, the distinction between primary versus secondary sources may be a bit more complicated than the above description suggests. For example, although a history of the Great Depression written during the 1950s is a secondary source for students and scholars of the Great Depression, it may also serve as a primary source for someone researching the 1950s, or more broadly, the ways in which historical interpretations of past events have shifted over time. The important question to ask is whether the work was written or created during the time period under investigation. Another example of a source that could be considered either primary or secondary depending on how it is used, is an article published during the 1930s interpreting the early artwork of Pablo Picasso. Art criticism is typically considered to be secondary literature. However, a historian interested in interpretations of cubism between the First and Second World Wars could also use it as a primary source.

The key question to ask when trying to classify a source as primary versus secondary is how you intend to use it. If a work was written or created during the time period that you are researching, it can be used as a primary source.

For a more in depth explanation of this issue, see Defining Primary and Secondary Sources by Michael Earmon, historian and archivst at the Library and Archives Canada .

Finding Primary Sources in the Library Catalogue

Try a keyword search in the library catalogue combining your subject with words that identify a particular genre:

  • correspondence
  • diaries
  • personal narratives
  • interviews
  • sources
  • travel

For example

  • holocaust and diaries
  • Hemingway and correspondence