About This Guide
This guide is intended to provide a general introduction to primary sources and how to identify and locate them, both at the University of Michigan and elsewhere.
There are many other research guides created by subject specialists which go into more depth for those areas. We have provided links to selected guides; a more complete list can be obtained by searching for 'primary source' in the search box above and choosing All Guides from the drop-down menu.
What Are Primary Sources?
Primary sources provide a way of interacting directly with the past by connecting us with the original record of social, political, cultural and scientific works from a specific time period created by those working in that time period. Primary sources can provide unique perspectives, as well as enable a scholar/student to interact with and interpret the source material.
Primary sources are:
- documents (images, maps, statistics, music, research data) that were created at a time closely associated with an event, person, idea, or period that you are studying.
- often a first-hand account or otherwise closely chronologically connected to a point in time that you are researching.
- may be created later by someone with first-hand experience of an event (memoirs or autobiographies, for example).
- discuss and analyze primary sources.
- are secondary because they are at least one step removed from the primary sources they discuss.
- are created with the benefit of hindsight, which may offer insights not available from first-hand experiences.
- Most non-fiction books are usually considered to be secondary sources (since they synthesize many ideas and works, and/or represent information from more than one event or period).
Note: Sources that are even further removed (e.g., because they synthesize and describe material from secondary sources) are called tertiary sources. Encyclopedia articles and Wikipedia entries would be considered tertiary sources.
Are there exceptions?
Absolutely! Sometimes what we think of as secondary sources become primary sources, depending on how you are using them.
If you are analyzing how literary scholars from the 1950s talked about women's literature, and consulted textbooks and other scholarly books that would normally be considered secondary sources from that period, you would be using them as primary sources for the point of view that they revealed due to their proximity to that time period. Whether a source is primary or secondary depends on how you use the source.
An original research article is a primary source in that it is the first representation of original work. However, the scholarly work draws on scholarly works that were part of the scholarly conversation before the article was written (as evidenced by the list of references at the end of the article). So although the article can be considered primary, it can also be considered secondary in that it considers and analyzes the articles that came before it.
And sometimes primary sources might be thought of as secondary under certain conditions:
A work is translated into a new language from it's primary source equivalent.
A work is edited after the author's death.
A work is edited to meet a censor's requirement.
Examples of Primary Sources
Literary or cultural sources:
- novels, plays, poems (both published and in manuscript form)
- television shows, movies, or videos
- paintings or photographs
Example: The play, "Toussaint" by Lorraine Hansberry
- The play itself is a primary source.
- A critical article discussing the play is a secondary source.
Primary Sources on People
Examples of primary sources about people:
- interviews, letters, journals, oral histories, diaries
- census records
- newspaper articles
Example: The American film director, Robert Altman
- The book Robert Altman : interviews, edited by David Sterritt, is a primary source.
- The book, Robert Altman's subliminal reality by Robert T. Self, is a secondary source
- The Robert Altman Archive of UM Library Special Collections' Mavericks of American Film collection contains many kinds of primary sources related to the director.
Data as Primary Source
Examples of data as primary sources include:
- Census (population, business, etc.)
Example: A poll about the outcome of racially charged trial.
- The poll and its accompanying data would be the primary source.
- Reports about the poll in popular or scholarly literature would be secondary sources.
Scientific Primary Sources
Examples of primary sources about scientific information include:
- observations/field notes
- clinical studies
image: Galileo, draft notes and observations of the moons of Jupiter, 1609-10, manuscript in the Special Collections Library, University of Michigan Library
Example: An article (citation to be identified) reporting on a clinical study
- The article would be the primary source
- Reports about the research in popular literature would be a secondary source.
- A discussion of the research in a systematic or literature review would be a secondary source.