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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                                


 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
  • historical documents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

RCCC Presentation and Useful Link Sheet

Recently Added History Databases

logo from the database, pic of the roman coliseum

Local or NC Sites for Primary Documents

Old churches

Salem Press ebooks


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