Primary Sources vs. Secondary Sources

Primary Sources

Definition: Primary sources are the raw materials of history — original documents and objects which were created at the time under study. They are different from secondary sources, accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience.

Library of Congress, “Using Primary Sources” (accessed 1/29/2018).

Types of Primary Sources

Original Documents

  • Diaries
  • Speeches
  • Correspondence
  • Interviews
  • Manuscripts
  • Government Documents
  • News film footage
  • Archival Materials
  • Autobiographies

Creative Works

  • Art works
  • Novels
  • Poetry
  • Music
  • Architectural drawings/plans
  • Photographs
  • Film

Relics and Artifacts

  • Pottery
  • Decorative arts
  • Clothing
  • Buildings
  • Textiles
  • Needlework

Secondary Sources

Definition: Secondary Sources are accounts written after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. They are interpretations and evaluations of primary sources. Secondary sources are not evidence, but rather commentary on and discussion of evidence.

Yale University Library, “Linguistics: Primary, secondary & tertiary sources” (accessed 1/29/2018).

Types of Secondary Sources

  • Bibliographies
  • Biographical works
  • Commentaries, criticisms
  • Conference proceedings Essays or reviews
  • Histories
  • Literary criticism such as journal articles
  • Magazine and newspaper articles Monographs, other than fiction and autobiographies
  • Reprints of art works
  • Textbooks (could also be considered tertiary)
  • Websites (could also be considered primary)

Sotheby’s Institute of Art, “Library and Academic Resources for Online Students” (accessed 1/29/2018)

How to Cite Digitized Primary Sources

The examples below serve as a guide to the most common formats and types available on the Library of Congress Web site:

  • Chicago (commonly used in history)
  • MLA (commonly used in language arts)
  • APA (commonly used in social sciences)

Library of Congress, “Citing Primary Sources” (accessed 1/29/2018)

Major Primary Sources Online Collections