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History and Humanities Research Guide

What is a Primary Source?

What is a primary source?

  • A primary source is a first hand testimony, document, speech or other evidence that gives insight into a particular person or an event.
  • They are often created during the time period which is being studied but can also be produced later by eyewitnesses or participants.
  • Primary sources are available in their original format in libraries, museums, archives, and are also reproduced online in library databases, books, and on university, government, and museum websites.

Examples include:

  • Original documents like: Autobiographies, memoirs, oral histories, diaries, interviews, correspondence, minutes, film footage, official records, photographs, raw research data, speeches, newspapers, government documents, email.
  • Creative original works like: Art (paintings, drawings, sculptures, etc.), drama (plays, scripts, etc.), films, music, novels, poetry.
  • Relics or artifacts like: Buildings, clothing, DNA, furniture, jewelry, pottery.

What is a Secondary Source?

What is a secondary source?

  • Secondary sources interpret historical events by examining primary sources and usually other secondary sources, such as books and journal articles. 

Examples include:

  • Non-fiction books
  • Magazine articles
  • Scholarly articles that interpret original data (the raw data would be a primary source)
  • Blog or website posts describing or interpreting an event or person
  • Read this alumnae/i post about women's fashion at Vassar College. The article is a secondary source, while the photograph below is a primary source.

Fashionable Vassar Women

Image Source

What is a Tertiary Source?

What is a tertiary source?

  • Tertiary sources are "meta" sources that compile information on a given topic.

Examples include:

  • Bibliographies, literature reviews, meta-analyses, indices, anthologies, lists, etc.
  • The annotated bibliography you compile when researching a topic for a paper is considered a "tertiary" source.
  • A Buzzfeed "listicle" (or article that compiles a list linking to other sources) would also be considered a tertiary source.
  • In the social sciences, a literature review would also be considered a tertiary source.

Open Web Sources with Primary Sources

Free Digital Collections with Primary Sources

Library Databases with Primary Sources

Library Databases with Primary Sources

Primary Sources in the Library

Primary Sources in the Library