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What's the Difference Between Primary and Secondary Sources?

Primary Sources

Primary sources are documents or physical objects which were written or created during a time under study. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event. Primary sources are records of events as they are first described, without any interpretation or commentary. Examples of primary sources include:

Original Documents
Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies
Creative Works
Art, poetry, music, novels
Relics or Artifacts
Pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources interpret and analyze primary sources. They are one or two more steps removed from the event. They often attempt to describe or explain primary sources. Examples of secondary sources include:

Publications
Textbooks, magazine articles, criticisms, commentaries, encyclopedias, dictionaries

Examples of primary and secondary sources

Primary Source Secondary Source
Art Original artwork Article critiquing the piece of art
History Slave diary Book about the Underground Railroad
Literature Poem Treatise on a particular genre of poetry
Theater Videotape of a performance Biography of a playwright

Adapted from Princeton University's Primary vs. Secondary Sources website.

Edited April 2015

 

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