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College Writing: Places and Perspectives

Getting Started Working with Primary and Secondary Sources

Explore Primary Sources

Primary Sources provide direct or first hand evidence. This may be about an event, object, or person; work of art or literature; or findings from original research. The information primary sources contain is original and has not been rewritten or reinterpreted by someone else. 

    Examples of Primary Sources:

  • Newspaper reports, by reporters who witnessed an event or who quote people who did.
  • Speeches, diaries, letters and interviews - what the people involved said or wrote.
  • Original research.
  • Datasets, survey data, such as census or economic statistics.
  • Texts of laws, legislative hearings, and other government documents.
  • Original works of art, paintings, sculpture, building, poems, or literature
  • Performances, singing, dance, theatrical 
  • Photographs, video, or audio that capture an event.
  • Plant and animal specimens
  • Coins, jewelry, pottery, clothing, furniture 

Examples of Primary Sources by Subject Discipline:

Discipline Primary Source    
Art   Original artwork, e.g. Michelangelo's David  
Business   Annual report of a company, e.g. Starbucks  
History   Diary, e.g. the diary of Marie Curie, Anne Frank  
Literature   Poems, short fiction, or book of literature, e.g. Emily Dickinson, Maya Angelou  
Political Science   A bill that is passed into law, e.g. Equal Rights Amendment   
Sciences   Report of an experiment, e.g. an article analyzing the effects of gravity on ocean waves  

Social or Behavioral Sciences

  An article reporting the findings of original research, e.g. an article on student's confidence and academic success     
Theater   A video recording of a theater performance, e.g. Hamilton, Phantom of the Opera  



Locating Source Material

What other primary source types could you consult?

The information primary sources contain is original and has not been rewritten or reinterpreted by someone else. 

Original documents: records, files, reports, maps, first-hand accounts of events, interviews, letters, personal journals, diaries, videos/sound recordings, original research including scientific data, opinion polls, government documents, social media posts

Creative works: memoirs, photos, films, poetry, drama, novels, art work, gardens, code, advertisements, GIFs

Relics, artifacts: jewelry, pottery, furniture, clothing, tools, architecture/buildings

Secondary Sources

Often produced sometime after an event has occurred, interpret, analyze, and comment on primary sources.

  • Books

  • Interpretive articles from journals, magazines, newspapers

  • Reviews

A source can be primary or secondary depending on how it is being used. Often newspapers are considered secondary sources as journalists report, analyze, and interpret events and the experience of others. Newspapers can also be used as primary sources. If you are researching how American attitudes on welfare spending have changed during the past twenty years, newspaper editorials can serve as primary sources of public opinion.

Librarians and your instructor can help you identify primary and secondary sources for your projects.

Special Collections at WU