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Martha S. Grafton Library

Primary Sources: Definitions

A guide to finding and using primary sources.

What is a Secondary Source?

A Secondary Source analyzes or interprets a past event to solve a research question. These sources are usually created by someone who did not experience the event first-hand.

Image credit: Rodrigo Galindez


  • Journal articles
  • Books

*These documents may be primary depending on their function in research. Are they being used as raw data and/or first-hand evidence? If so, they are primary. Example: books on the Civil War used to support research on how scholarship of the Civil War has evolved over time.

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    What is a Primary Source?

    A Primary Source is a document that gives a first-hand account of an event or individual. That means the creator of the document experienced or recorded the event at the time, or very near the time that it took place. 

    Woodrow Wilson at Mary Baldwin College, 1912. Photo Credit: Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Archives on Flickr


    • Diaries, scrapbooks (and other personal papers)
    • Correspondence (from telegraphs to e-mails)
    • Memoirs, auto-biographies
    • Financial, business records
    • Photographs
    • Video clips
    • Speeches
    • Government documents
    • Sound recordings
    • Statistics
    • Laboratory research
    • Newspapers (only in a historical context)
    • Field notes

    Adapted from George, Mary W. The Elements of Library Research. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

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