Primary vs. Secondary Sources

When doing any kind of research, all the types of information you use are your sources.  Those sources are usually divided into primary and  secondary sources, and you often need to use both.  So, just what are primary and secondary sources?  

Well, in general, a primary source is an original, first hand piece of information, while a secondary source interperets that primary, original information.  It's also important to distinguish between a primary source in humanities fields (history, literature, religion, etc) vs. the sciences.  In the humanites, a primary source is a document from the time or place studied--Lincoln's Gettysburgh Address, for example.  In the sciences, on the other hand, a primary source is usually an original empirical study reported in a peer-reviewed journal (examined by experts in the field before publication).

For more information on primary versus secondary articles, please see the following:

Primary vs Secondary: Humanities & Sciences



Primary Source

  • Original, first-hand account of an event or time period
  • Usually written or made during or close to the event or time period
  • Original, creative writing or works of art
  • Factual, not interpretive
  • Report of scientific discoveries
  • Results of experiments
  • Results and political science research results
  • Factual, not interpretive


Secondary Source

  • Analyzes and interprets primary sources
  • Second-hand account of an historical event
  • Interprets creative work
  • Analyzes and interprets research results
  • Analyzes and interprets scientific discoveries


--created by By Susan Thomas, CUNY Library: