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A guide to Primary and Secondary Sources
A primary source is an original document that contains firsthand information about a topic or an event. Primary sources exist on a spectrum and different fields of study may use different types of primary source documents. For example, the field of History may use diary entries and letters as primary source evidence, while the Sciences may use a publication of original research as a primary source. Being an interdisciplinary program, ISS courses and topics will require a range of understandings and approaches to primary sources. Here are some common examples of primary source documents:
- Historical documents (letters, pamphlets, political tracts, manifestos)
- Data and Research Results (scientific article presenting original findings, statistics)
- Original works of art
- Video footage & photographs
- Works of literature
- Interview transcripts
- Eyewitness accounts, newspapers articles & autobiographies
- Blogs articles, tweets and other social media entries
- Lab notebooks and case studies
Primary Source Research
Primary sources can be found in a plethora of databases and through search engines such as Google. Here are some starting points to searching for historical and primary source documents. When deciding where to look for primary sources, first think about the type of information you are seeking, and from what time period. This will help to narrow down your choices.
Independent Voices This link opens in a new window
US alternative press publications dating mostly from the 1960s-1990s; includes ethnic, feminist, underground, antiwar, etc.
American Civil Liberties Union Papers, 1912-1990 This link opens in a new window
ACLU clippings, correspondence, subject files, case files and administrative documents covering major civil liberties issues of the 20th century.
Archives of Sexuality & Gender: Parts I & II This link opens in a new window
Articles, reports & manuscript material illustrating LGBTQ history and culture since 1940.
UW Special Collections
UW Libraries' major resource for rare and archival materials covering a broad range of topics, formats and periods.
Global and local information in the news from both past and present
A secondary source is an interpretation, analysis, discussion or evaluation of an event or issue that is based on primary source evidence. Secondary sources list, summarize, compare, and evaluate information and studies so as to draw conclusions or present on the current state of knowledge on a topic. Secondary sources are often in the form of scholarly discourse or reviews. Secondary sources are useful to introducing a topic and providing historical or broader context. Common examples of secondary sources are:
- Indexes, Abstracts, Bibliographies
- Journal articles
- Literary criticism
- Monographs written about the topic
- Reviews of books, movies, musical recordings, works of arts, etc
- Newsletters and professional news sources
Secondary Source Research
Like primary sources, secondary sources can be found in a plethora of databases and through search engines such as Google Scholar. Because secondary sources are commentary on other works, they tend to be easier to find through library databases. To make a general search in article databases or the UW Libraries search, make sure to use the filters to choose publication type (peer-review article, newspaper, etc). Below are some starting points to help you begin your search for secondary sources:
Article databases provide a subject-specific search for scholarly articles, conference proceedings, newspaper articles and more. For databases specific to ISS topics, check out the Article Databases tab on this guide.
Encyclopedia entries provide a broad overview of a topic or subject. They are always commentary and provide context for a topic at large.
Newspapers can be primary or secondary sources, depending on the context of your research inquiry. This guide provides global and local information in the news both past and present.
Guide to finding and accessing e-books at the UW libraries.
Provides a simple and free way to broadly search for scholarly literature. Search for articles, theses, nooks, abstracts and court opinions.
Primary vs. Secondary Sources
The differences between a primary and a secondary source can be ambiguous. A source may be primary in one context and secondary in another. What determines whether it's a primary source is both the discipline and the research question. For example this article, South Persia and the Great War, was published in 1921 and provides a history of the war (a secondary source). But it is written by Percy Sykes who led a British military force there (a primary source). Here are a set of questions that may help you to determine and evaluate the nature of the source being used:
- How does the creator of the source know the information? Was the creator present at the event or experience the topic at hand?
- Where does the information come from? Is it personal experience, eyewitness accounts, reports written by others or commentary/interpretation?
- Are the author's conclusions based on a single piece of evidence or do they have multiple sources taken into account?
Research Minute: Primary vs. Secondary Sources