Primary Resources Research Paper

Primary sources enable you to get as close as possible to understanding the lived experiences of others and discovering what actually happened during an event. However, what constitutes a primary or secondary source depends on the context in which it is being used. For example, David McCullough’s biography of John Adams could be a secondary source for a paper about John Adams, but a primary source for a paper about how various historians have interpreted the life of John Adams. When in doubt, ask a librarian for assistance!

Reviewing primary source material can be of value in improving your overall research paper because they:

  1. Are original materials,
  2. Were created from the time period involved,
  3. Have not been filtered through interpretation or evaluation by others, and
  4. Represent original thinking or experiences, reporting of a discovery, or the sharing of new information.

Examples of primary documents you could review as part of your overall study include:

  • Artifacts [e.g. furniture or clothing, all from the time under study]
  • Audio recordings [e.g. radio programs]
  • Diaries
  • Internet communications on email, listservs, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms
  • Interviews [e.g., oral histories, telephone, e-mail]
  • Newspaper articles written at the time
  • Original Documents [i.e. birth certificate, will, marriage license, trial transcript]
  • Patents
  • Personal correspondence [e.g., letters]
  • Photographs
  • Proceedings of meetings, conferences and symposia
  • Records of organizations, government agencies [e.g. annual report, treaty, constitution, government document]
  • Speeches
  • Survey Research [e.g., market surveys, public opinion polls]
  • Transcripts of radio and television programs
  • Video recordings
  • Works of art, architecture, literature, and music [e.g., paintings, sculptures, musical scores, buildings, novels, poems]

Bahde, Anne. Using Primary Sources: Hands-On Instructional Exercises. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2014; Brundage, Anthony. Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2013; Daniels, Morgan and Elizabeth Yakel. “Uncovering Impact: The Influence of Archives on Student Learning.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 39 (September 2013): 414-422; Krause, Magia G. “Undergraduates in the Archives: Using an Assessment Rubric to Measure Learning.” The American Archivist 73 (Fall/Winter 2010): 507-534; Rockenbach, Barbara. “Archives, Undergraduates, and Inquiry-Based Learning: Case Studies from Yale University Library.” The American Archivist 74 (Spring/Summer 2011): 297-311; Weiner, Sharon A., SammieMorris, and Lawrence J.Mykytiuk. "Archival Literacy Competencies for Undergraduate History Majors." The American Archivist 78 (Spring/Summer 2015): 154-180.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources


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 of clinical trials
  • Social 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


Primary Sources
  • Diaries, journals, and letters
  • Newspaper and magazine articles (factual accounts)
  • Government records (census, marriage, military)
  • Photographs, maps, postcards, posters
  • Recorded or transcribed speeches
  • Interviews with participants or witnesses (e.g., The Civil Right Movement)
  • Interviews with people who lived during a particular time (e.g., genocide in Rwanda)
  • Songs, Plays, novels, stories
  • Paintings, drawings, and sculptures
  • Published results of research studies
  • Published results of scientific experiments
  • Published results of clinical trials
  • Proceedings of conferences and meetings
Secondary Sources
  • Biographies
  • Histories
  • Literary Criticism
  • Book, Art, and Theater Reviews
  • Newspaper articles that interpret
  • Publications about the significance of research or experiments
  • Analysis of a clinical trial
  • Review of the results of several experiments or trials

Specific Examples

Primary SourceSecondary Source
Literature“Song of Myself” (Poem) Journal article about the poem’s historical importance
PsychologyResults of clinical trial to treat ADD by modifying dietBook about ways to treat childhood ADD without drugs
Politics and GovernmentU.S. Census StatisticsBook about suburban population changes in U.S.
History Recorded interview with Choctaw American Indian Journal article about Native Americans who served in WWII
Social ScienceDiary of Anne FrankBook about diaries kept during the Holocaust
ArtPhotographs by Diane Arbus Magazine article about 20th century female photographers

Websites of Primary Resources

The Library of Congress American Memory Project
AMP is a rich, searchable database of written and spoken words, sound recordings, still
and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience.

The Historical Text Archive
HTA is a well-designed, searchable database with three sections: full-text articles
(also includes essays and photographs), ebooks, and links to other digitized primary resources.

Digital Collections: Michigan State U. Libraries and Digital & Multimedia Center
DC is a collaborative, ongoing project to digitize selected materials from MSU Libraries’
Special Collections. Browsable collections include Africana, American Radicalism, Applied and
Life Sciences, and History and Social Sciences.

Repositories of Primary Sources
A directory of over 5,000 websites describing holdings of manuscripts, archives, rare books,
historical photographs, and other primary sources for the advanced research scholar. Includes links to libraries and other
institutions with digitized primary resources.

Using Primary Sources on the Web
A brief guide to evaluating primary internet resources with excellent examples of specific documents
and image files.

By Susan Thomas, Evening and Weekend Librarian ( )

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