Primary And Secondary Sources Guideline For Students

primary and secondary sources

As a student, you may need to conduct research in the subject you are studying, whether social sciences, humanities, arts, or others. For this reason, you should be able to tell the difference between primary and secondary sources. Having a clear distinction between primary and secondary sources is essential so that the reader can get a clear idea of the source of information.

Why Are Primary And Secondary Sources Important?

Having a good idea about primary and secondary sources will enable the reader to identify to what extent the author was involved in the research process, whether the author is reporting information first-hand or conveying the opinion and experiences of others through a secondary source.

If you always seem to confuse the primary and secondary sources, worry. In this article, we will be explaining how are primary and secondary sources different through various examples so that you have a clear idea of them.

What Is A Primary Source Of Information?

A primary source is an account of events written by someone who witnessed the event being discussed. It gives you direct information about events, people, or phenomena you are searching for.

If you are searching for an event in the past, you cannot access it yourself; you need primary sources created at that time by people who witnessed the event, which can be in letters, newspapers, photographs, etc. Suppose you are researching something related to present times. In that case, your primary data source will be qualitative or quantitative information related to the topic, which can be through interviews, experiments, surveys, etc.

What Is A Secondary Source?

A secondary source is a review of the primary source, which aims to describe, explain, interpret, and analyze information from primary sources. Such references are usually in the form of books, articles, synopsis, reviews, essays, etc.

Radio, conference proceedings, and television documentaries are examples of secondary sources as they draw conclusions or further explain the primary sources related to a topic. When you are using a secondary source, it’s basically to test the arguments presented in it to use them to formulate your ideas about the research.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Some sources can often act as both primary and secondary sources; hence it is essential to know what is the main difference between primary and secondary sources. We have carefully listed all the key differences between the two sources so that you never confuse the two.

Primary Source Secondary Source
A primary source is raw information or the first-hand evidence you gather in your research Secondary sources are the ones that analyze and interpret the information from primary sources
Provides a starting point for the research Provides second-hand information
Offers direct information, results, and observations as witnessed related to the research Offers information about people’s interpretations, trends, themes, or background related to the research
It can also be an eyewitness account of a personality, circumstance, or event Second-hand account of a personality, circumstance, or event made after the time it was recorded
The primary source can be personal and subjective Secondary source tends to be more objective
You can get new findings through primary sources You can find well-established facts or ideas through secondary sources
Primary sources involve a lot of details about a few things Secondary sources give fewer details about many things
Primary sources support your argument or thesis statement Secondary sources help form your argument or thesis
Tells about the incident without adding any personal idea or opinion that may reflect the attitudes from a later time Interprets and explains a historical event and gives evidence of the event
Primary sources can be found through:

  • Census Bureau
  • Congress library
  • The Smithsonian
  • Museums
  • Other information centers
Secondary sources can be found through:

  • Encyclopedias
  • Factbooks
  • Monographs
  • Dissertations
  • Biographies
  • General histories
  • Journal articles
  • Published books
  • Chronologies
A Primary source can be divided into qualitative and quantitative data.

Qualitative data include:

  • What people say (interviews, speeches, video, and audio recordings)
  • What people write (Autobiographies, personal journals, diaries, letters, blogs, emails, Twitter feeds, memoirs, and other forms of social media)
  • Videos and images (Maps)
  • Government documents
  • Laws, court cases, treaties, and newspapers.

Quantitative data includes:

Statistics, polls, public opinion and related data.

Secondary sources include:

  • Scholarly articles
  • Handbooks
  • Reports
  • Dictionaries
  • Documentaries
  • Newspapers

Primary And Secondary Source Examples:

Now checkout this detailed list about examples of primary and secondary sources:

Primary Source Examples Secondary Source Examples
Novel The article that analyzes the novel
Diaries and letters written by historical figures Biography of historical figures
A painting that describes the event The exhibition catalog explains what the painting is portraying and all the related details
An essay that is written by a philosopher sharing his thoughts and ideas about the event A textbook or article explaining, analyzing, and summarizing the philosopher’s ideas
Photographs of an event that happened in history Documentary explaining all the related information about the event
Government documents or letters about a new policy Newspaper articles, journals, and talk shows describe the details of the policy
Music recordings related to the event or idea Academic book explaining the musical style adapted in the recordings
Results of an opinion poll Blog post interpreting the poll results and explaining the reason behind it.
Empirical study Literature review that supports the study

Primary And Secondary Sources In Detail

Often secondary and primary sources are closely related, so it’s hard to distinguish between the two. Sometimes, secondary sources may become primary sources, depending on your research topic. Let’s look at some of the sources that can act as primary and secondary sources both.

  • Documentaries:
    If your research topic is related to World War II, then a recent documentary on the war will be a secondary source. However, if your research topic is about the filmmaking techniques used in historical documentaries, then the documentary will be a primary source.
  • Reviews and essays:
    If you are researching a specific novel, a magazine review analyzing the novel will be a secondary source. On the other hand, if you are researching the writer’s work, the magazine review will be a primary source.
  • Newspaper articles:
    If your goal is to analyze government policies, then a newspaper article about the policy will be a secondary source. On the contrary, if your research is related to media coverage on government policies, the newspaper articles will be a primary source.

How To Tell If A Source Is Primary Or Secondary

A source can be primary or secondary depending on your research topic you pick for your custom research paper; hence it’s imperative to look into some essential tips to identify the source. When you have to identify the source, ask yourself these questions, and the answer will determine the type of source it is:

  1. Is the source from someone directly involved in the events or idea you are researching? If yes, then it’s a primary source. If the source is from another researcher, it’s a secondary source.
  2. If you are using the source to analyze it, then it’s a primary source, but if you are using it to get background information, then it’s a secondary source
  3. If the source provides original information related to the research, then it’s a primary source; however, if it offers its comments on information from other sources, it’s a secondary source.

Primary Or Secondary Sources: Which Is Better?

In most research, you may need to use primary and secondary sources. It’s suitable for the research as they complement each other and help the researcher create a convincing argument. Primary sources usually provide the starting ground for the study and help in the following ways:

  • Provide evidence for your thesis
  • Make discoveries related to your research
  • Give witnessed information about the topic
  • Without primary sources, the analysis may be considered unreliable.

Secondary sources help gain a complete overview of the topic and understanding of the approach of the other researchers towards it. Secondary sources are beneficial in the following ways:

  • Gain access to background details on the topic
  • Support or contradict your ideas with the ideas of other researchers
  • Get information from primary sources that you cannot access easily( e.g., physical documents and private letters)
  • They help in gaining a thorough overview of your topic

To sum it up, primary sources are more credible, but secondary sources describe your work related to the existing research, so you can still use both to make your study more credible. No matter which source you use, make sure to cite all your sources correctly at the end of the research to avoid plagiarism

Need Help With Essay Sources?

It’s vital to refer to the correct information as primary and secondary sources because that can highly affect the results of the research and its outcomes. If you have a lot of research work on your hand and find it difficult to understand the difference between primary and secondary sources, then it’s time you hire our online essay writing service for your research help. “Write my essay” service offers professional editors and experienced writers that guarantee trustworthy services for your everyday writing needs, from homework to requests like “do my dissertation”. We guarantee high-quality, fast, and custom-based services for teachers, professors, and students of all schools and classes. Contact us for details, and we will guide you about the process through which we carry out our services.


Here are some commonly asked questions about primary and secondary sources:

Are books secondary sources?

If a book summarizes or interprets a primary source, it will be a secondary source.

Is a documentary a primary source?

A documentary can be a primary and secondary source both depending on your research topic

Reliable secondary sources?

Academic books, journals, articles, essays, textbooks, and reviews.

Is a book a primary or secondary source?

A book can be a primary and secondary source both depending on your research topic

Are statistics primary sources?

Yes, it is as it involves the details related to the event or research.

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