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Primary, Secondary, & Tertiary Sources

What are primary sources?

Primary sources provide direct or firsthand evidence about a topic. The creator of primary sources is often intimately connected with the topic or event. Most often, creators of primary sources are participants in the events they describe, either directly or by virtue of living during the time period in question. Given this broad definition, primary sources comprise a wide range of resource types across the various disciplines.

What is the role of primary sources in research?

Primary sources are crucial to producing authoritative, original research. They serve as the researcher's primary focus and they represent evidence for a particular phenomenon or theory. As such, primary sources serve as the foundation upon which all secondary and tertiary sources are developed. All research entails primary sources of one kind or another; without primary sources, there would no object of study to analyze, theorize, or critique. 

What are some examples of primary sources?

Primary sources can include many different resource types depending on discipline and application. Primary sources include:

  • Historical and legal documents
  • Government documents
  • Eyewitness accounts
  • Results of experiments
  • Statistical data
  • Pieces of creative writing
  • Audio and video recordings
  • Photographs
  • Correspondence
  • Speeches
  • Works of art
  • Interviews
  • Surveys
  • Fieldwork
  • Internet communications (email, blogs, and listservs)

In the sciences, primary sources are often empirical studies—research where an experiment was performed or a direct observation was made. The results of empirical studies are typically found in peer-reviewed journal articles or papers delivered at conferences.

In the humanities, on the other hand, primary sources tend to be things like works of art, historical accounts of events, government documents, rare or archival materials, oral histories, or audio/visual materials. These sources provide the humanities researcher evidence upon which they develop their argument. These kinds of primary sources are more likely to be found in museums, libraries, archives, and digitized collections.