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Research Process: Primary vs. Secondary

This guide focuses on the skills and resources needed to complete a research project.

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 Databases | Classic Catalog | Remote Access | Help                                


 Databases | Classic Catalog | Remote Access | Help                                

What is a Primary Source?

A primary source is an artifact, a document, a recording, or other source of information that was created at the time under study. It serves as an original source of information about the topic (the first version). A primary source can be a person with direct knowledge of a situation. 

So when should someone use primary sources? To read eyewitness accounts or view photographs or video of an event instead of relying on a summarized explanation; to interpret data yourself instead of relying on another's interpretation; to reflect on and analyze works of literature or art instead of relying on another's opinion; to verify claims made in secondary sources. 

 pictures of primary documents

Some examples of primary sources include:

  • works of art
  • historical artifacts
  • original published results of an experiment
  • newspaper articles written at the time of the event
  • peer-reviewed articles
  • autobiographies
  • first-hand interviews
  • letters
  • historical documents
  • Photographs, maps, postcards, posters
  • Diaries, journals, letters, speeches
  • Government records (census, marriage, military)
  • Creative works (songs, plays, novels, stories, paintings, drawings, sculptures)
  • Artifacts (Coins, furniture, tools, clothing)
  • Audio or video recordings (e.g. radio, television programs)
  • Internet communications (email, listservs, websites, tweets, blogs)
  • Original documents (e.g. birth certificate, will, marriage license, trial transcript)
  • Patents
  • Proceedings of meetings, conferences, and symposia
  • Records of organizations, government agencies (e.g. annual report, treaty, constitution, government document)
  • Survey research (e.g. market surveys, public opinion polls)
  • Advertisements
  • Original research article with raw data

What is a Secondary Source?

A secondary source is material that relates or discusses information originally presented elsewhere. Secondary sources involve generalization, analysis, synthesis, interpretation, or evaluation of the original information. Some sources may be classified as primary or secondary, depending on how it is used.

picture of biographies


Some examples of secondary sources include:

  • book reviews
  • magazine articles
  • biographies
  • literary criticism
  • editorials
  • video commentary
  • panel discussions
  • movie reviews
  • summaries

What is a Tertiary Source?

Tertiary sources attempt to condense and summarize materials into an overview, but may also present subjective commentary and analysis (which are characteristics of a secondary source). Reference books like almanacs or user manuals would be typical examples.

Tertiary sources

Some examples of tertiary sources include:

  • almanacs
  • guidebooks
  • timelines
  • survey articles
  • dictionaries
  • encyclopedias
  • bibliographies
  • textbooks

Where can I find primary sources through RCCC?

Some good places to start would be some of our databases:

Remember, however, that primary sources are original sources. Asking for interviews, checking museums or other places that specialize in local history, or looking through government documents are all great ways to research using primary sources.

Where can I find some primary sources online?

National Archives Logo

Search the National Archives for collections of documents that are important to American History.


Picture of the Library of CongressLibrary of congress logo

  • Historic Newspapers - Enhanced access to America's historic newspapers through the Chronicling America project.
  • Historic Sound Recordings - The National Jukebox features over 10,000 78rpm disc sides
  • Prints and Photographs - Catalog of about half of the Library's pictorial holdings with over 1 million digital images.
  • Veterans History Project - Experience first-person stories of wartime service through personal artifacts, audio and video interviews.

Salem Press

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Pew Research

Pew Research Center logo

How to Incorporate Primary Sources in English and Communications

Primary sources in literature are the book, article, etc. written by the author (for example, Shakespeare's Hamlet) or personal information produced by the author (Shakespeare's letters, diaries, manuscripts, etc).

Primary documents are original documents and usually do not describe or analyze other documents. They may be published, but sometimes they may be unpublished.

Other ways to incorporate primary sources in Literature may be to compare a historical document to a work of literature. For example, students studying Walt Whitman may use the primary sources located in the Infobase American History to expand their historical knowledge and add context to the literature.

For more information about incorporating primary documents into your area, check the links at the bottom of this box and the academic articles on the right side of this page. As always, the RCCC Librarians are here to help you find sources so don't hesitate to ask.

How to Incorporate Primary Sources in Science, Social Science, Nursing, and Psychology

Instructors of the social sciences, physical sciences, business/economics, and other disciplines can also incorporate primary documents. For these disciplines here is a very short list of examples of primary sources for the fields:​

  • Political Scientists: the ballot form of the last mayoral race in Boston; the hearings of the 1973 Senate Watergate Committee.
  • Sociologists: the questionnaire used for some survey
  • Physicists: rock from the moon
  • Biologists: blood samples from a gorilla
  • Psychologists: notes taken when investigating an individual's post-traumatic stress disorder

Another way to incorporate primary documents is to pull primary sources from another disciplines, such as history or literature, to add context and a deeper understanding to concepts and/or events. The Digital Public Library of America has a source set for the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and 1970s that could be used to compare/contrast with current events as well as a Space Race Source Set. For nursing instructors, there is the Source Set for There Is Not Cure for Polio

No cure for polio source set picture  PIcture of a space ship Black Power Movement

Be willing to explore new media with the sciences. A great example of a multimedia primary source is National Geographic's Out of Eden Walk which incorporates maps, diaries, videos, interviews, and more to document Paul Salopek's retracing of global migration. 

For more information about incorporating primary documents into your area, check the links at the bottom of this box and the academic articles on the right side of this page. As always, the RCCC Librarians are here to help you find sources so don't hesitate to ask.

How to Incorporate Primary Sources in History

From 5 Strategies for Using Primary Source Documents in Social Studies Classrooms

Use primary sources to corroborate secondary sources.

Provide students with a secondary interpretation—a recent newspaper article, an encyclopedic narrative, a passage from a book—and provide primary sources for students to corroborate the claims. If the textbook provides an overly simplistic narrative, students can examine primary sources on the subject and re-write the narrative. 

Brainstorm dialogue of historical figures based on primary source analysis.

One way to foster student-centered instruction is to have students brainstorm dialogue based on primary source analysis. This forces students to synthesize multiple viewpoints to draw conclusions.

For example, if students read Alexander Hamilton’s economic writings from the 1790’s, in which he advocated for an industrial America and a government that amassed debt, alongside Thomas Jefferson’s words on agriculture and fiscal restraint, students could construct a debate between the men. They could insert speech bubbles on images of the men, act out a skit, or participate in a mock debate. The primary sources are the catalyst for creativity and to contextualize a time period.

Move past the “main idea.”

Teachers should instruct students to think past the “main idea” or “summary.” These instructions are fine, but alone can allow students to skim a source and not really read it closely for historical thinking. Focusing in on vocabulary in context, asking students to corroborate multiple sources, analyzing the point of view of the source, among others, are ways to condition historical thinking with rigor.

Let all people in history speak for themselves

Teachers should think about who is speaking in their history class. If all the primary sources focus on politicians and notable figures, the everyday folks driving history, making history, are left out. Analyzing the words of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln are important, but so too is hearing from those not so famous and those often marginalized in society.

If using a source from Frederick Douglass, also use Kale’s letter to John Quincy Adams, an 11-year old captive on the Amistad. If using Abigail Adams’ words on gender equality in the founding era, also use excerpts of diaries and letters from lesser-known women to help contextualize a time period. Students need to see themselves in the curriculum.

Consider multiple formats of primary sources.

Primary sources are not always text-based. Rather than read a speech, students can listen or view a speech.

Students can analyze images, posters, photographs, cartoons, and many other visual primary sources to learn content and build skills.

For more information about incorporating primary documents into your area, check the links at the bottom of this box and the academic articles on the right side of this page. As always, the RCCC Librarians are here to help you find sources so don't hesitate to ask.

RCCC Presentation and Useful Link Sheet

Recently Added History Databases

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Local or NC Sites for Primary Documents

Old churches

Salem Press ebooks

Articles to Support Using Primary Sources

To Find Films Through the RCCC Library

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Laurie Robb's picture
Laurie Robb
Instructional Librarian
South Campus, 8am-5pm