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UMW Libraries
Simpson Library | Special Collections

Information Evaluation: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary & Secondary Sources

"The raw materials of history — original documents and objects which were created at the time under study." 

Primary Sources are created during the time of study


  • Newspaper or magazine articles
  • Books, pamphlets, government documents
  • Diaries, letters, manuscripts, speeches, interviews, relics, artifacts
  • Maps, archival materials, creative works
  • Art, visual materials, music, sound recordings, videos


Source:  Using Primary Sources by Library of Congress.. / Image Source: Primary Source Graphic by adstarkel. Used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

"Accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience." 

Secondary sources are created after the fact


  • Publications (not 1st person perspective)
  • Journal articles
  • Books, textbooks
  • Histories, criticisms, commentaries
  • Reference materials, encyclopedias

Source:  Using Primary Sources by Library of Congress.. / Image Source: Secondary Source Graphic by adstarkel. Used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Primary and Secondary Research

In the social sciences and the sciences, scholars use the terms "primary" and "secondary" differently from scholars in the humanities. 
Primary research refers to the research conducted by the authors of the article or resource.  The article will descibe the authors' methodology, results and conclusions.  
Secondary research describes the research done by others.  While all scholarly articles will include a review of the literature on the topic at hand, many journals also publish research reviews that examine the research done on the topic over a span of time.  These can be excellent resources for the student scholarly, as they can lead you to additional primary research on your topic.

Video (2:18): 5 Awesome Primary Source Websites

Tips for Finding Primary Sources

  • Check the bibliography and notes of your secondary sources. 
  • Watch for these terms in subject headings
    • Sources
    • Personal narratives (for first-person accounts)
    • Diaries
    • Correspondence
    • Interviews
  • Look in the library catalog for diaries, journals, memoirs by individuals, collections of the papers of notable people, and published collections of primary resources.
  • Use the Advanced Search feature in the library's catalog to refine your search.

The research guide for History and American Studies has additional information on locating primary sources


This guide is based on the work of Mike FitzGerald, Los Angeles Valley College Library, which can be found here.

The SIFT Method portion of this guide was adapted from "Check, Please!" (Caulfield). The canonical version of Check, Please! exists at (CC-BY). As the authors of the original version have not reviewed any other copy's modifications, the text of any site not arrived at through the above link should not be sourced to the original authors.