Primary v. Secondary Sources


Historic research occasionally requires the use of what are known as primary sources.  Though something of a simplification, primary sources generally take the form of songs, letters, photographs, pamphlets, etc. written during the time under study with a first-person perspective. Secondary sources, in contrast, generally interpret or analyze a person, place, thing, etc.  To put it another way, secondary sources are one or more steps removed from the event under study while primary sources represent original materials.


The line between secondary and primary source is at times hazy so a few examples are in order.  


The following are primary sources:

  • The Diary of Anne Frank 
  • The United States Constitution
  • A journal article from the 1890s reporting NEW research 
  • Hopi pottery 
  • A turn-of-the-century Photograph of Lake Erie



The following are secondary sources:

  • A Biography of Anne Frank
  • A book on the creation of the Constitution
  • A journal article interpreting EXISTING research 
  • An encyclopedia article about Hopi Indians
  • A book of photographs


Some secondary sources can be used as primary sources, but in general, primary sources will represent an inside view while secondary sources will represent a third party analysis.


For advice on working in an archive or library with primary sources, it might be helpful to read the following blog posts:

A Users Guide To The Texas Collection Part 1 - or - How I Survived The Rigors Of Research

A Users Guide To The Texas Collection Part 2 - or - Dealing with Challenging Sources

A User’s Guide to the Texas Collection Part 3 - or - How to Know that Enough is Enough