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Research Strategies

Primary and secondary sources

Defining Sources

Primary Sources

  • Materials that contain direct evidence, first-hand information from a person who witnessed or participated in an event.
  • Primary sources provide the raw data for your research
  • The way you interpret or use a source determines whether it is a primary source or not.

Secondary Sources

  • Use primary source data to analyze an event or solve a research problem.
  • Secondary sources can be interpreted as primary sources when the artifactual characteristics of the item are of research value.

Tertiary Sources

  • Books or articles that synthesize and report on secondary sources for general readers
  • Examples:  textbooks, encyclopedia articles, Wikipedia
Be careful! What is considered a primary source in one discipline can be classified as a secondary source in another. Check with your professor or a research librarian if you are unsure.

Examples by field of study

Discipline Primary Source Secondary Source


original poem

book or article discussing a genre of poetry


diary, letters

book or article surveying a topic or period

Political Science

treaty, government document

article on the application of a treaty


original artwork

critique of the artwork

Theater/ Film


biography of a famous director

Sciences/ Social Sciences

report of an original experiment, research data and statistics

review of several related studies

How Do You Find Them?

  • The bibliography and footnotes of a secondary source is a goldmine of information. They list all the primary sources and in depth, secondary research done by a scholar who spent a lot more time searching and compiling sources.

  • Searching for a primary source as you begin your research is very difficult.  Finding an appropriate source may take time, but let your research sources tell you about primary source possibilities and then begin the search now knowing exactly what you’re looking for.

  • Many primary sources can be found online. Whether a science index, social science database, or digitized historical material, start with the resources available through the library website.

  • Our catalog is filled with books that have reprinted primary source material.  If you do a keyword search for your topic and one of the words below, you may find something very convenient for you to use.

    • charters

    • correspondence

    • diaries

    • early works

    • interviews

    • manuscripts

    • oratory

    • pamphlets

    • personal narratives

    • sources

    • speeches

    • letters

    • documents

Popular and scholarly articles

Books or articles

Beginning a research project with only a very broad topic?

Books have some valuable components that tend to be overlooked in the online environment that emphasizes journal articles.  They can help you narrow your topic into a specific question by giving you background information and by synthesizing many journal articles.   No one ever said that you had to read a book from cover-to-cover to extract information from it!

Use Google Books  or Library Search with a limit to just books to search within the contents of books for more precise targeting and discovery.

After narrowing to a specific question, search for articles which will fill in with more current and particularized information.

  Books Articles
Overall  In-depth, broad examination of a topic Original results of a specific research question or experiment
Analysis Deep analysis, broad historical perspective, synthesis of numerous research results and opinions Single focus without much historical overview or context
Useful Segments Table of contents, introduction, individual chapters, bibliography Less specific segments, more a single snapshot
Publication Cycle Lag time in publication means not as current More current
Length Longer Shorter

Book reviews

Book reviews can be very useful in a number of ways during the research process.

  • They may often give:
    • information about the author,
    • a summary of the book's contents,
    • comparisons to other works in the field,
    • and of course evaluative comments.
  • Surveying many reviews can provide an overview of the critical reception of a book.
  • Reviews themselves can range from one paragraph to several pages, from popular to scholarly.
  • For book review sources in particular subject areas, see the Library's subject guides.
  • In many indexes or databases, one can limit a search to book reviews only.

Current Reviews

Magazines and newspapers with reviews of recent books.

Historical Reviews

Academic journals may have reviews of scholarly works, while long runs of newspapers and magazines will have reviews of popular books.

Online Sources

Print Sources