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Finding Primary Sources @ Pitt: Definitions

Learn to distinguish between primary and secondary sources; learn strategies for finding primary sources.

Three Types of Sources

There are three types of sources:

1) Primary Sources

  • Original materials that provide direct evidence or first-hand testimony concerning a topic or event.
  • Primary sources can be contemporary sources created at the time when the event occurred (e.g., letters and newspaper articles) or later (such as, memoirs and oral history interviews).
  • Primary sources may be published or unpublished.  Unpublished sources are unique materials (e.g., family papers) often referred to as archives and manuscripts.
  • What constitutes a primary source varies by discipline. How the researcher uses the source generally determines whether it is a primary source or not.

2) Secondary Sources

  • Works that interpret, analyze, and discuss the evidence provided by primary sources (e.g., scholarly books and articles).
  • Secondary sources are generally a second-hand account or observation at least one step removed from the event.
  • Secondary sources, however, can be considered to be primary sources depending on the context of their use. For example, Ken Burns' documentary of the Civil War is a secondary source for Civil War researchers, but a primary source for those studying documentary filmmaking.

3) Tertiary Sources

  • Books or articles that synthesize or distill primary and secondary sources, often in a convenient, easy-to-read form (e.g., dictionaries, encyclopedias, indexes, and textbooks).

Side-by-Side Comparison

Example . . . Primary Sources Secondary Sources
The Historian researching World War I might utilize:

Newspaper articles, weekly/monthly news magazines, diaries, correspondence, and diplomatic records from 1914 to 1919.

Articles in scholarly journals analyzing the war, possibly footnoting primary documents; books analyzing the war.
The Literary Critic researching literature written during World War I might utilize: Novels, poems, plays, diaries, and correspondence of the time period. Published articles in scholarly journals providing analysis and criticism of the literature; books analyzing the literature; formal biographies of writers from the era.
The Psychologist researching trench warfare and post-traumatic stress disorder in World War I veterans might utilize: Original research reports on the topic or research notes taken by a clinical psychologist working with World War I veterans. Articles in scholarly publications synthesizing results of original research; books analyzing results of original research.
The Scientist researching long-term medical effects of chemical warfare on exposed veterans might utilize: Published articles in scholarly journals reporting on a medical research study and its methodology. Published articles in scholarly journals analyzing results of an original research study; books doing the same.

What Is a Primary Source