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Course & Subject Guides

Finding Primary Sources @ Pitt

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 of a participant or eyewitness of an event or topic.
  • 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  • Primary sources may be published or unpublished.  Unpublished sources are unique materials (e.g., family papers) often referred to as archives and manuscripts.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 an 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).

What Is a Primary Source? (video)

A short video from the UC San Diego Library that "defines the difference between a primary and a secondary source of information in looking at the John F. Kennedy assassination. Primary and secondary sources are used to tell the story." Due to its potentially disturbing content, confirmation of age through a YouTube/Google account is required to watch the video.

Side-by-Side Comparison: Primary and Secondary Sources

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.

Primary Sources by Subject

Each field of study has its own world of sources, conventions, and vocabularies.  The list that follows is not all-inclusive, but will help you to identify primary sources in your own discipline.  In general, personal correspondence and diaries or journals are considered to be primary sources by all disciplines. If you are unsure that a source is considered primary by your discipline, ask your professor or a reference librarian for assistance.

  • Archaeology/Anthropology: an artifact or object that provides evidence of a society, such as clothing, farming tools, household items, and buildings.

  • Arts and Literature: the original artistic or literary work that forms the basis for a criticism or review, such as feature films, musical compositions, sound recordings, paintings, novels, plays, and poems.

  • Biology: research or lab notes, genetic evidence, plant specimens, technical reports, and other reports of original research or discoveries (e.g., conference papers and proceedings, dissertations, scholarly articles).

  • Business: market research or surveys, anything that documents a corporation's activities, such as annual reports, meeting minutes, legal documents, marketing materials, and financial records.

  • Communication: websites, blogs, broadcast recordings and transcripts, advertisements and commercials, public opinion polls, and magazines (e.g., Rolling Stone).

  • Engineering: design notes, patents, conference proceedings, technical reports, and field surveys.

  • Geography: field notes, census data, maps, satellite images, and aerial photographs.

  • History: government documents (e.g., treaty, birth certificate), photographs, store account books, artifacts (such as those listed for archaelogy/anthropology), maps, legal and financial documents, and census records.

  • Law: court decisions, trial trancripts, and law codes.