What is a primary source?

A primary source can be an article, document, diary, manuscript, object or information written or created at the time an event actually took place. Primary sources serve as an original source of information.


A primary source is a first-hand record of an event or topic created by a participant in or a witness to that event or topic. Primary sources can be a document, letter, eye-witness account, diary, article, book, recording, statistical data, manuscript, or art object. Primary sources vary by discipline and provide an original source of information about an era or event. Although primary sources can include first-hand accounts that were documented later, such as memoirs or oral histories, primary sources created or written closest to the time of the actual event are considered to be the most useful sources for research purposes.

A secondary source is second-hand information written or created after an event. Secondary sources may summarize, interpret, review, or criticize existing events or works.  Secondary sources were written or created after an event by people who were not at the original event. Secondary sources can be many formats including books, articles, encyclopedias, textbooks, or a scholar’s interpretation of past events or conditions.

Examples of Primary Sources and Secondary Sources:

Primary Source:                                                 Secondary Source:

An original painting by Mary Cassatt                   A book about the artist Mary Cassatt

President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address              An article about Abraham Lincoln

A photograph of Harry Houdini                            A website about Houdini's magic tricks

An original Gershwin musical score                     A recent recording of Gershwin songs                             

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Last Updated: Jul 17, 2020
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