What are primary sources?
Primary sources are original materials on which research is based. They are firsthand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under consideration. They present information in its original form, neither interpreted nor condensed nor evaluated by other writers.
Whether a source is primary can be determined by the way it is being used by the researcher. For example, a speech about the Declaration of Independence that was delivered by a noted statesman on its hundredth anniversary would be secondary source for a scholar studying the document’s philosophical origins. However, it would be a primary source for a scholar studying how the Declaration’s meaning has changed for Americans over time.
- Newspaper articles (reporting events)
- Trial transcripts
- Works of literature
- Films, documentary and artistic
- Music and song lyrics
- Autobiographies, personal narratives, memoirs, diaries
- Papers of an organization
Differentiating between primary and secondary sources
Secondary sources offer interpretation or analysis based on primary sources. They may explain primary sources and often uses them to support a specific thesis or argument or to persuade the reader to accept a certain point of view. Such works are one or more steps removed from the event—being written with the benefit of hindsight.
Primary and secondary sources are not fixed categories. The use of evidence as primary or secondary is determined by the type of research you are conducting. Here are some considerations that may help you differentiate the two categories:
• Time of publication: Material written close to the time of the event is often primary material. For instance, a diary written by one of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo is primary material as is an article in the newspaper reporting on the demonstrations. However, a contemporary article about the orignis of the movement would be secondary material.
• Purpose of the material: An article, book, essay, etc. written with an analytical or persuasive point of view is secondary. The latest population data for Buenos Aires are primary material; an article describing trends and analyzing the data is secondary.
• Context of the researching scholar: Primary materials for a critic studying the literature of Dirty War differ significantly from primary materials for a physician studying the health problems of the victims. The critic’s primary materials are the stories, poems, songs of the era. The physician would study the victims’ medical records.