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Basic Research Help: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Field Primary Sources Secondary Sources
All Fields

Raw data gathered by you or others.

Your own field notes, experiments, surveys, or interviews that you conduct.

Comparisons that interpret or draw conclusions about the data.

Reviews of the literature and other guides to help you prepare for experiments, surveys, etc.

Textbooks, scholarly, and popular works about a field or topic.


Treaties, laws, constitutions, court cases, census data, other government data.

Journals, diaries, letters, speeches, autobiographies of people involved in the event.

Photographs, film, newspaper & magazine firsthand reporting of the actual event.

Contemporary artifacts or actual items used at the time.

Journal articles, books, encyclopedia or textbook articles about such documents.

When reflections on events by people not directly involved.

Interpretive articles, or historical reflections.

Photographs or drawings of artifacts.

Literature & Music

Texts of novels, plays, poems, musical scores.

Author or composer’s notes correspondence or autobiographies.

Author’s recorded readings of own works.

Performances of plays or films/videos of such performances.

Musical performances, and recordings, films or videos of live performances.

Reviews, Criticism or introductory/explanatory material.

Biographies of author, musician.

Film interpretations of novels, plays [would be a primary source if your research topic is the musician, conductor, actor or director or how a work is interpreted differently over time].

Performances be considered interpretations of the composer’s work but are a definitely a primary source if your research topic is the musician, conductor or how a work is interpreted differently over time.


Original painting, sculpture, etching, etc.

Artist’s sketch books, diaries, letters, etc.

Original building, architectural plans, artifacts.

Reproduction of art works in print, film or digital medium.

Biographical and critical books or articles about the art/artist.

Photographs of buildings and architectural details; books and articles interpreting and critiquing architects, styles, etc.

Natural Sciences & Social Sciences

Original reports of primary research published or presented at meetings by the individuals doing the study – includes data and methodology – generally in scholarly journals.

Books, articles, documents from scientists, theorists and other major figures in a field.

Reviews of the literature comparing several studies; editorials or reporting about primary research.

Criticism and interpretation of or studies on the significance of such documents and people.

Religion & Philosophy

Sacred texts – particularly in original language – Hebrew Old Testament; Greek New Testament, Arabic Koran, etc. Standard English translations are generally accepted as primary for undergraduates.

Books and treatises by philosophers or theologians.

Commentaries on the texts Synopsis or excerpts of verses of such texts.

Interpretation and criticism of or studies on the significance of such documents and people.