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Lucy Scribner Library

Primary Sources: Welcome

What is a Primary Source?

A primary source is that which provides firsthand information, direct evidence, or original data on a topic. It is the material on which other research is based. Primary sources tend to be contemporary to the events or conditions under examination, but in some circumstances may be written or created at a later time (e.g. autobiographies, memoirs, or oral histories).

Examples of primary sources include original manuscripts, technical reports, diaries, memoirs, letters, photographs, drawings, posters, film footage, sheet music, interviews, government documents, public records, eyewitness accounts, conference proceedings, works of literature, statistical data, speeches, emails, tweets, and web pages.

Primary sources are usually characterized by their content, not their format.  It typically does not matter whether they are in their original format, in microform, in digital form, or published in print. 

Many of the primary sources available electronically via the Lucy Scribner Library are listed in the following pages. For more information and additional resources see Helpful Resources (in this guide) or consult a subject-specific research guide.

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources

In research, information sources are generally categorized by level (primary, secondary, or tertiary), depending on their originality and proximity to the source or origin. Works that analyze primary sources (e.g. most scholarly articles and books) are considered to be secondary sources. Works that compile primary and secondary information (e.g. encyclopedias) are considered to be tertiary sources.

To complicate matters, the designations of primary, secondary and tertiary information may differ between disciplines and/or subjects.  For instance, a scholarly journal article is usually considered a primary source in the sciences while a scholarly journal article in the humanities is likely to be a secondary source.  However, a poem appearing in a literary journal for the first time would be a primary source, while a scholarly article interpreting, analyzing, or evaluating the same poem would be a secondary source. Journal, magazine and newspaper articles can be primary or secondary depending on context and specifics.

To simplify--what you are analyzing might be considered a primary source, what you are consulting to do the analysis might be a secondary source, and sources providing basic facts might be tertiary sources.

When it doubt ask your instructor or a librarian.