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Primary Sources: Characteristics of Primary Sources

This guide contains resources and guidance to help students find primary sources

How to identify a primary source

  • Created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Primary means “first”, “original” or “direct”.
  • They give us first-hand insights to the past.
  • They are actual records that have survived from the past. They are in their original form (diaries, letters, photos, etc.) usually without explanation or interpretation. 
  • Primary sources do not speak for themselves, they need to be interpreted.
  • Primary sources document events, people, and viewpoints of the time.
  • The nature and value of a source cannot be determined without reference to the topic and questions it is meant to answer. 
  • Provenance (chain of ownership) needs to be established for personal belongings. Date and authority of sources must be verified before using them in your assignment.  In other words, consider a document’s attribution (the name of the author or editor and how the document came into being) first.
  • You must remember that primary source material is not always an objective source.
  • Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of whether they are available in original format, in microfilm/microfiche, in digital format, or in published format.
  • They can be either published or unpublished.

What is a secondary source?


A secondary source is an account or interpretation of events created by someone without firsthand experience, usually using primary sourcesSecondary sources are usually one or more steps removed from the event. 

For example, most history books are secondary sources, written long after historical events took place, and contain excerpts from historical first-hand documents, direct quotes, etc.

Primary vs secondary sources


Can a primary source be a secondary source?


Yes, the same document, or other piece of evidence, may be a primary source in one investigation and secondary in another, depending on the questions you ask. The search for primary sources does not, therefore, automatically include or exclude any category of records or documents.

Documentary example: 

If you are researching Feudal Japan by watching a recent documentary on this topic, the documentary would be a secondary source. But if you are researching the filmmaking techniques used in the documentary, the documentary is a primary source.