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Primary Source Documents  

Last Updated: Dec 8, 2017 URL: Print Guide

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What are Primary Sources?


Primary sources are original records created at the time historical events occurred or after events in the form of memoirs and oral histories.

Primary sources may include letters, manuscripts, diaries, journals, newspapers, speeches, interviews, memoirs, documents produced by government agencies such as Congress or the Office of the President, photographs, audio recordings, moving pictures or video recordings, research data, and objects or artifacts such as works of art or ancient roads, buildings, tools, and weapons.



What are Secondary Sources?

 A secondary source is a work that interprets or analyzes an historical event or phenomenon. 

It is generally at least one step removed from the event and is often based on primary sources.  Examples include scholarly or popular books and articles, reference books and textbooks.


 "Using primary source documents" : A guide to recognizing and using primary source documents with links for research.

Cross-curricular Primary Resources

The Library of Congress & National Archives

Project Databases -Reform Movement

Many primary source documents can be found in the databases.

Digitized Books

Primary Sources for Science

The idea of primary sources in the sciences are a little bit different than primary sources in the humanities or social sciences.  In the sciences, the focus is on the research.  Primary sources are ones written by the scientists who performed the experiments - these articles include original research data.  Secondary sources are ones that summarize or compare lots of research in a particular area.

So how can you tell if a science article is a primary source?  Primary research articles will include sections about:

  • methodology -  explaining how the experiment was conducted
  • results - detailing what happened and providing raw data sets (often as tables or graphs)
  • conclusions - connecting the results with theories and other research
  • references - to previous research or theories that influenced the research

(Source - University Libraries - U.S. Carolina)


Primary Sources in the Sciences....

  • Report original research, ideas, or scientific discoveries for the first time
  • Report results/findings/data from experiments or research studies
  • May also be referred to as primary research, primary articles, or research studies
  • DO NOT include meta-analyses, systematic reviews, or literature reviews - these are secondary sources
  • Are frequently found in peer-reviewed or scholarly journals
  • Should explain the research methodology used (randomized controlled trial, etc)
  • Frequently include methods, results, and discussion sections
  • Are factual, not interpretive


  • Research studies or scientific experiments
  • Papers and proceedings from scientific conferences or meetings
  • Dissertations and Theses
  • Technical Reports
  • Patents

(Source- Michigan State Libraries)

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