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Library Research Guides

Primary Sources Primer

Introduction to the nature of primary sources and how to find them at the University of Michigan, including resources on campus, external to campus, and online.

About This Guide

This guide is intended to provide a general introduction to primary sources. There are many other research guides created by our subject specialists which go into more depth for those areas.  Below are links to selected guides that touch on primary sources for specific disciplines.

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).

Secondary sources:

  • 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.  

Example 1:

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.

Example 2:

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:

Example 3:

A work is translated into a new language from it's primary source equivalent.

Example 4:

A work is edited after the author's death.

Example 5:

A work is edited to meet a censor's requirement.


Cultural 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
  • obituaries
  • newspaper articles
  • autobiographies

Example:  The American film director, Robert Altman

Data as Primary Source

Examples of data as primary sources include:

  • Polls
  • 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:

  • experiments
  • observations/field notes
  • clinical studies

image: Galileo, draft notes and observations of the moons of Jupiter, 1609-10, manuscript in the Special Collections Research Center, 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.