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Get Started with Basic Research: Primary and Secondary Sources

This guide provides an introductory overview of how to use library resources as well as tips for researching information and citing sources.

Information Sources

Information sources are commonly classified as either primary or secondary:

  • A primary source is a first-hand account.  Primary sources are original documentation and usually do not describe or analyze other documents (though they may include a literature review section).
    • Examples include original research studies, interviews, observations, speeches, works of art, artifacts, personal letters, and historical documents.
    • Primary sources can be used as a focal point for discussion about a topic, to support claims or criticisms, as evidence for theories and research, or to provide historical perspectives.
  • A secondary source is created when an author interprets and analyzes a primary source.  While a primary source speaks to the actual creation of the source, a secondary source speaks in detail about something that has already been created.
    • Examples of secondary sources include encyclopedias, books, and textbooks that summarize or synthesize information from primary sources as well as magazine and journal articles that review rather than conduct research studies.
    • Secondary sources can be used to get background information, to understand the scope of a topic, to see what others have discussed or hypothesized, to learn how a recent event fits into a larger picture, and to understand the significance of events, data, and other works.

When you find an article, ask yourself this question: “Did the author(s) actually conduct the research presented in the article?”  Your answer will help you determine if the article is a primary or secondary source. If the answer is “yes,” it is a primary source. 

To help you answer this question, look at the language in the abstract and throughout the full text of the article for hints. For example, look for phrasing such as “our research” and “our findings.” Be careful! Authors may use possessive pronouns when describing the process in which they conducted their review of other studies even though reviews are considered secondary sources. When in doubt, ask a librarian!