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Primary, Secondary & Tertiary Sources: What is a Primary Source?

What is a Primary Source?

Primary sources are first hand accounts of an event or topic created by an individual or individuals who had a direct connection with the event or topic.  

Primary sources will vary in type depending upon the discipline, but can include:

  • Personal writings (letters, diaries, autobiographies, emails, social media posts, etc.,)
  • Photographs, Artwork, Graphic Designs, etc.,
  • Clothing & Textiles
  • News Coverage (video, audio, & print)
  • Video & Audio
  • Data (financial/economic, census, statistics, etc.,)
  • Interviews & Speeches (any format) 
  • Company Records (financial, legal, etc.,)
  • Public Records (laws, meeting minutes, etc.,)
  • Data and experimental design from experiments
Discipline Primary Source Examples
Advertising Ads, Ad campaign
Accounting/Business Financial Documents of Companies
Art          Artwork, Image, Photograph, Artists' writings, interview with artist
Athletic Training Original Research Study with methods, results and participants
Biology

Original Research Study with methods, results and participants or materials

Chemistry

Original Research Study with methods, results and materials

Communication/Sports Communication Social media, news coverage 
Criminal Justice Research studies with methods, materials, and results, data, government policy and laws
Economics Economic philosophy texts, economic data and government documents
Education Data from research studies or surveys, education law and policy, lessons plans and teaching materials
English/Literature Work of Literature, Author's diary or letters
Environmental Science & Policy

Original Research Study with methods, results and materials

Fashion Clothing, Designer's Sketches
Fashion Merchandising Business or Advertising Plan, financial documents
History    Memoir, Journal, Letters, film footage, speeches
Journalism Interviews recorded or written
Legal/Paralegal    Legal Statute or Court Case
Media Studies Film, television shows, video games, scripts
Medical Technology

Original Research Study with methods, results and participants or materials

Philosophy Philosophers' writings, speeches, diaries, letters
Physical Therapy

Original Research Study with methods, results and participants

Physician Assistant

Original Research Study with methods, results and participants

Political Science       Legislative Documents
Psychology Practitioner's Case Notes, Original Research Study with methods, results and participants
Public Administration government documents, company reports, reports of non-profit organizations
Religion Religious texts
Social Work Census or Raw Data, Practitioner's Case Notes, Original Research Study with methods, results and participants

Selecting the Best Primary Sources

Time and Place Rule

The closer in time and place a source and its creator were to an event in the past, the better the source will be.  Better primary sources (starting with the most reliable) might include:

  • Direct traces of the event;

  • Accounts of the event, created at the time it occurred, by firsthand observers and participants;

  • Accounts of the event, created after the event occurred, by firsthand observers and participants;

  • Accounts of the event, created after the event occurred, by people who did not participate or witness the event, but who used interviews or evidence from the time of the event.

The Bias Rule

Every source is biased in some way.  Documents tell us only what the creator of the document thought happened, or what the creator wants us to think happened.  As a result, researchers follow these guidelines when reviewing evidence from past events:

  • Every piece of evidence and every source must be read or viewed skeptically and critically.

  • No piece of evidence should be taken at face value.  The creator's point of view must be considered.

  • Each piece of evidence and source must be cross-checked and compared with related sources and pieces of evidence.

Newspapers - Primary Source?