What Is a Primary Source?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms - Definition and Examples

Photo of Abraham Lincoln sculpture at Lincoln Memorial with his handwritten Gettysburg Address overlaid on it
The Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., has two of the five known manuscripts of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. These manuscripts are both original sources and primary sources.

Diane Diederich/Getty Images

In research activities, a primary source refers to information collected firsthand from such sources as historical documents, literary texts, artistic works, experiments, surveys, and interviews. It is also called primary data and is very different than a secondary source.

The Library of Congress defines primary sources as "actual records that have survived from the past, such as letters, photographs, or articles of clothing," in contrast to secondary sources, which are "accounts of the past created by people writing about events sometime after they happened" 

Examples of Primary Sources

  • "[Primary sources] provide the 'raw data' that you use first to test the working hypothesis and then as evidence to support your claim. In history, for example, primary sources include documents from the period or person you are studying, objects, maps, even clothing; in literature or philosophy, your main primary source is usually the text you are studying, and your data are the words on the page. In such fields, you can rarely write a research paper without using primary sources." (Wayne C. Booth et al. The Craft of Research. University of Chicago Press, 2008)

Chief Characteristics

  • "The chief characteristics of primary sources are: (1) being present during the experience, event or time and (2) consequently being close in time with the data. This does not mean that data from primary sources are always the best data. . . . Data from human sources are subject to many types of distortion because of such factors as selective recall, selective perceptions, and purposeful or nonpurposeful omission or addition of information. Thus data from primary sources are not necessarily accurate data even though they come from firsthand sources." (Natalie L. Sproull, Handbook of Research Methods: A Guide for Practitioners and Students in the Social Sciences, 2nd ed. Scarecrow Press, 2002)

Methods of Collecting Primary Data

  • "If the information you need is unavailable or hasn't yet been gathered, you'll have to gather it yourself. Four basic methods of collecting primary data are field research, content analysis, survey research, and experiments. Other methods of gathering primary data include historical research, analysis of existing statistics, . . . and various forms of direct observation." (H. Dan O'Hair et al. Business Communication: A Framework for Success. South-Western, 2001)

Secondary Sources and Their Bibliographies

  • "By identifying basic facts, such as year of construction, secondary sources can point the researcher to the best primary sources, such as the right tax books. In addition, a careful reading of the bibliography in a secondary source can reveal important sources the researcher might otherwise have missed." (Alison Hoagland and Gray Fitzsimmons, "History." Recording Historic Structures, 2nd. ed., edited by John A. Burns. Wiley, 2004)

Original Sources

  • "The distinction also needs to be made between primary and original sources. It is by no means always necessary, and all too often it is not possible, to deal only with original sources. Printed copies of original sources, provided they have been undertaken with scrupulous care (such as the published letters of the Founding Fathers), are usually an acceptable substitute for their handwritten originals." (E. J. Monaghan and D. K. Hartman, "Undertaking Historical Research in Literacy," in Handbook of Reading Research, ed. by P. D. Pearson et al. Erlbaum, 2000)

Finding and Accessing Primary Sources

  • "This one is entirely dependent on the assignment given and your local resources; but when included, always emphasize quality. . . . Keep in mind that there are many institutions such as the Library of Congress that make primary source material freely available on the Web." (Joel D. Kitchens, Librarians, Historians, and New Opportunities for Discourse. ABC-CLIO, 2012)