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What's the Difference Between Primary and Secondary Sources?

●       Primary sources are documents or physical objects which were written or created during a time under study.  These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event.  Primary sources are records of events as they are first described, without any interpretation or commentary.   Examples of primary sources include:

                    ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS – diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies

                    CREATIVE WORKS – art, poetry, music, novels

                    RELICS OR ARTIFACTS – pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings

             ●       Secondary sources interpret and analyze primary sources.  They are one or two more steps removed from the event.  They often attempt to describe or explain primary sources.  Examples of secondary sources include:

                    PUBLICATIONS – textbooks, magazine articles, criticisms, commentaries, encyclopedias, dictionaries

Examples of primary and secondary sources:

                   Primary Source                               Secondary Source

Art               Original artwork                       Article critiquing the piece of art

History          Slave diary                             Book about the Underground Railroad

Literature      Poem                                     Treatise on a particular genre of poetry

Theatre         Videotape of a performance      Biography of a playwright


Adapted from Princeton University’s Primary vs. Secondary Sources website at and Bowling Green State University’s Primary vs. Secondary website at

Created February 3, 2014


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