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Primary v. Secondary Sources: Home

This guide will help you distinguish the characteristics and uses for primary and secondary sources that you will find and communicate about in your research. You will also learn how a primary source can change depending on the topic you are studying.

Primary and Secondary Status is Relative

A source's classification as primary or secondary can change depending on the topic you are studying.

For example, if you are writing about the topic of how female body image is reflected on the internet, and you find a website such as The Media and Body on Image-Mirror Mirror.org,  this could be considered a primary source.

How female body image is reflected on the internet  and the webpage Media and Body Image on Mirror Mirror.org represents the object you are studying.

However, if you are writing about anorexia and Barbie dolls and you find an article on the webpage Media and Body Image on Mirror Mirror.org, the article would be considered a secondary source.

Since you are writing about anorexia, an article on Mirror Mirror.org is a analysis based on primary sources.

Primary Sources

Primary sources are materials that are eyewitness accounts or as close to the original source as possible.They are original observations, documents, or objects. Primary sources are the materials that subsequent interpretations are based.

Qualitative data:

  • What people say.
    They are usually Speeches, Interviews and Conversations, and they may be captured in Videos, Audio Recordings, or transcribed into text.
  • What people write. 
    These include Autobiographies, Memoirs, Personal Journals and Diaries, Letters, Emails, Blogs, Twitter Feeds, etc.
  • Images and Videos.
  • Maps.
  • Government Documents--U.S. and rest of world.
  • Laws, Court Cases and Decisions, Treaties.
  • Newspapers.

Quantitative data:

  • Statistics
  • Data from laboratory or field results
  • Polls and Public Opinions

Please note that a book is simply a format.  You can find both primary and secondary sources published in book form

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are interpretations and analyses based on primary sources.

For example, an autobiography is a primary source while a biography is a secondary source.

Typical secondary sources include:

  • Scholarly Journal Articles.  Use these and books exclusively for writing Literature Reviews.
  • Magazines.
  • Reports.
  • Encyclopedias.
  • Handbooks.
  • Dictionaries.
  • Documentaries.
  • Newspapers.

Please note that a book is simply a format.  You can find primary and secondary sources published in book form.