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Primary Sources: What, Why, & Where: Primary & Secondary Sources

Explains the differences between primary and secondary sources, why to use them, and where to find them.

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources: An Overview

Created by Vija G. Mendelson

What Are Primary & Secondary Sources?


A source that comes from the same person or organization who created, participated in, or witnessed something. For example, if you take a picture, that is a primary source. 

More examples:

  • Original Art
  • Artifacts
  • Autobiographies 
  • Census data
  • Company Annual Report 
  • Diaries   
  • Interviews  
  • Laws
  • Memoir
  • Movie
  • Novel
  • Oral histories 
  • Photos
  • Poetry
  • Results of an original experiment   
  • Speeches    
  • Video 

Some sources are difficult to label as "primary:"

  • A newspaper article from the time an event happened, for example, an article during the Civil War, would be considered primary, but a newspaper article written today about the Civil War would not.
  • A journal article with the results of an experiment done by the author would be primary. A journal article summarizing various experiments on the same subject would not be primary.


It is important to get as close as you can to the original event or source so you can observe and analyze without others' views clouding yours. We have all attended events and read about it later and said, "That's not how it was." It's the same with using primary sources. They help you form you own opinions and explanations. This will also greatly help you when you read secondary sources, both because you will have a clearer idea of what is being analyzed but also you can see more clearly where you agree or disagree.


A source that comments on or analyzes something, not written by someone directly involved. For example, a book review - the book is a primary source and the review of the book is a secondary source. Or - if you take a picture of something and post it to social media, that is a primary source - if your friends comment on the picture, their comments are a secondary source.


  • Analysis
  • Biographies
  • Criticism, such as Literary Criticism
  • Essays
  • Histories (not written by eye witness)
  • Manuals
  • Reviews
  • Textbooks

Secondary sources are often based on studying primary ones. Student research papers are secondary sources.

You can often find excerpts of primary sources within secondary ones, such as a long quotation in a biography.

Example of a Primary Source

Letter from Helen Keller to Alexander Graham Bell

Excerpt of letter from Helen Keller to Alexander Graham Bell, 1907

Example of a Secondary Source

Biography of Helen Keller

A biography of Helen Keller.

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