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What is a primary source?

My professor said not to use secondary sources? What's the difference?
Last Updated: Nov 04, 2015  |  250 Views

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There are many types of primary sources in the library. The right strategy will depend on the topic. The term "primary source" can be used in various ways depending on the discipline. Generally, first-hand accounts are considered primary sources, and materials created at a later time which analyze an event are considered secondary sources.

If you are researching university or local history, your first stop should be Special Collections.  Their collections can be browsed online at  Chico Digital Collections  or in person on the 3rd floor. A sampling of these interesting collections include:

Historical news articles contemporaneous with a certain event can be located in periodical indexes like these:

Other sources for historical primary sources include:   

Here is more information on searching Primary sources in different disciplines:

HISTORY and ANTHROPOLOGY: "Primary sources" are documents and objects created during the time period under study. These provide  contemporaneous, experiential accounts of events and cultures.

Examples include diaries, news stories, films, speeches, memoirs, letters, oral histories, photographs, official documents, artifacts, and creative works.  Look for them in Meriam Library:

  •    Library catalog
  •    U.S. Serial Set
  •    Special Collections
  •    Government Documents collection
  •    ArtStor (reproductions)
  •    Historical periodical indexes such as New York Times Index or Retrospective Reader's Guide

Secondary sources are articles, books, textbooks, and other sources written "after the fact". They provide facts, evidence, analysis and interpretation.

LAW: "Primary sources" usually refer to a law or case that is legally binding. Examples include constitutions, federal and state statutes, treaties, administrative regulations, and case law decided by the highest court level.  Look for these in Meriam Library:

  • Lexis Nexis Academic
  • Westlaw
  • Government Documents
  • Law Reference (2nd floor)

Secondary sources are found in legal briefs, law review articles, and news reports.

In Marketing, you will hear the term "primary research". This refers to data that must be compiled by direct contact with customers or companies. Examples include focus groups, customer surveys, price list requests, and personal observation.  "Secondary research" refers to published statistics and analysis from trade journals, government agencies, professional associations, and market research reports.

Secondary sources of market research in Meriam Library:

  • IBISWorld
  • Mintel
  • Business Source Premier
  • ABI/Inform
  • NetAdvantage Industry Surveys

Social Sciences: The term "primary" evidence may be used for empirical studies performed by a researcher. These research findings are published in scholarly/peer-reviewed articles. Statistics collected and compiled by government agencies and other reputable associations may also be considered primary sources.

You are welcome to ask a subject librarian for individualized help with your research project!

Answered by Wendy DiamondBookmark and Share

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