Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary Sources

Primary sources are original sources recorded at the time of an event or later recalled by participants or observers of that event. Original resources have not been interpreted, synthesized, discussed, or analyzed. They can include first-person accounts of events, interviews, data obtained through original research, statistics, artifacts, historical documents, oral histories, organizational records, or meeting minutes.

Types of sources falling into this category vary by discipline. Here are a few examples:

  • History: diaries, letters, manuscripts, news footage, speeches, maps, photographs
  • Literature: unpublished original poems, novels, plays, stories, or other manuscripts
  • Art and Music: original paintings, sculpture, compositions or recordings
  • Science: original research reports and data, water pollution measures, fossils
  • Political Science: polling data, census data, hearings, treaties, laws

Most scholars consider any article reporting the results of original research to be a primary source. However, some differentiate between the raw data and the analysis. For example, if a political scientist wrote an article discussing the results of a survey she conducted, the survey data could be considered primary and the researcher's conclusions secondary.

Fictional sources can also be used as primary sources, but it is important to note that these are primary sources for the time period in which they were produced or created, not the time period that they may depict. For example, a film such as Gone with the Wind is not a primary source for the Civil War period. Even though the film depicts the Civil War, it was not created during that period. However, Gone with the Wind could be used as a primary source for better understanding the time period in which the film was produced, the late 1930s.

There are many options for locating primary sources. If you are interested in primary sources related to Northern Kentucky University or the surrounding region, you may want to contact the Steely Library Special Collections and University Archives.

For additional information on locating primary sources, visit How to Find Primary Resources.  

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources restate, explain, synthesize, analyze, interpret or discuss primary sources. Secondary sources are created by individuals other than those who participated or observed. Some examples:

  • A book in which the author interprets a historical event based on newly discovered documents
  • A persuasive essay that uses statistics to bolster its arguments
  • A magazine article discussing trends in voter attitudes, based on analysis of election returns
  • A journal article critiquing a piece of art, a film, or a literary work
  • A news report highlighting recent research on a medical topic

NOTE: Some sources can be considered either a primary or secondary source, depending on how the source is used. A book written by a historian would usually be considered a secondary source. However, if the book was written in the 1930s, it could be considered a primary source for understanding the 1930s. For example, a present-day scholar could use the book to gain insight into race relations in the 1930s by examining the way the book describes African Americans.  

Also, note that some types of information sources fall into the "tertiary sources" category, as they are one step farther removed from the original source. Examples of tertiary sources are encyclopedia articles and textbooks, which summarize knowledge on a given topic.

Steely Library phone number:  859.572.5457