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*Research Guide: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Gateway Library general information for your research project

What is a Primary Source?

A primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event.

Examples of primary sources include:

  • Diary of Anne Frank - Experiences of a Jewish family during WWII
  • The Constitution of Canada - Canadian History
  • A journal article reporting NEW research or findings
  • Weavings and pottery - Native American history
  • Plato's Republic - Women in Ancient Greece

What is a Secondary Source?

A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them.

Examples of secondary sources include:

  • A journal/magazine article which interprets or reviews previous findings
  • A history textbook
  • A book about the effects of WWI

Primary vs. Secondary Sources






  Primary Source

  • Original, first-hand account of an event or time period
  • Usually written or made during or close to the event or time period
  • Original, creative writing or works of art
  • Factual, not interpretive
  • Report of scientific discoveries
  • Results of experiments
  • Results of clinical trials
  • Social and political science research results
  • Factual, not interpretive

Secondary  Source

  • Analyzes and interprets primary sources
  • Second-hand account of an historical event
  • Interprets creative work
  • Analyzes and interprets research results
  • Analyzes and interprets scientific discoveries




  • Diaries, journals, and letters
  • Newspaper and magazine articles (factual accounts)
  • Government records (census, marriage, military)
  • Photographs, maps, postcards, posters
  • Recorded or transcribed speeches
  • Interviews with participants or witnesses (e.g., The Civil Right Movement)
  • Interviews with people who lived during a particular time (e.g., genocide in Rwanda)
  • Songs, Plays, novels, stories
  • Paintings, drawings, and sculptures
  • Published results of research studies
  • Published results of scientific experiments
  • Published results of clinical trials
  • Proceedings of conferences and meetings


  • Biographies
  • Histories
  • Literary Criticism
  • Book, Art, and Theater Reviews
  • Newspaper articles that interpret
  • Publications about the significance of research or experiments
  • Analysis of a clinical trial
  • Review of the results of several experiments or trials


 Specific Examples             


Primary Source

Secondary Source

Literature "Song of Myself" (Poem) Journal article about the poem's historical importance
Psychology Results of clinical trial to treat ADD by modifying diet Book about ways to treat childhood ADD without drugs
Politics and Government U.S. Census Statistics Book about suburban population changes in U.S.
History Recorded interview with Choctaw American Indian Journal article about Native Americans who served in WWII
Social Science Diary of Anne Frank Book about diaries kept during the Holocaust
Art Photographs by Diane Arbus Magazine article about 20th century female photographers


     Source:  "Research Help: Primary vs. Secondary Sources". Borough of Manhattan Community College. A. Philip
                   Randolph Memorial Library (

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