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 and academics, a primary source refers to information collected from sources that witnessed or experienced an event firsthand. These can be historical documents, literary texts, artistic works, experiments, journal entries, surveys, and interviews. A primary source, which is very different from a secondary source, is also called primary data.

The Library of Congress defines primary sources as "the raw materials of history—original documents and objects which were created at the time under study," in contrast to secondary sources, which are "accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience," ("Using Primary Sources").

Secondary sources are often meant to describe or analyze a primary source and do not give firsthand accounts; primary sources tend to provide more accurate depictions of history but are much harder to come by.

Characteristics of Primary Sources

There are a couple of factors that can qualify an artifact as a primary source. The chief characteristics of a primary source, according to Natalie Sproull, are: "(1) [B]eing 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."

Sproull then goes on to remind readers that primary sources are not always more reliable than secondary sources. "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," (Sproull 1988).

Original Sources

Primary sources are often called original sources, but this is not the most accurate description because you're not always going to be dealing with original copies of primary artifacts. For this reason, "primary sources" and "original sources" should be considered separate. Here's what the authors of "Undertaking Historical Research in Literacy," from Handbook of Reading Research, have to say about this.

"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)

When to Use Primary Sources

Primary sources tend to be most useful toward the beginning of your research into a topic and at the end of a claim as evidence, as Wayne Booth et al. explain in the following passage. "[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," (Booth et al. 2008).

When to Use Secondary Sources

There is certainly a time and place for secondary sources and many situations in which these point to relevant primary sources. Secondary sources are an excellent place to start. Alison Hoagland and Gray Fitzsimmons write: "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," (Hoagland and Fitzsimmons 2004).

Finding and Accessing Primary Sources

As you might expect, primary sources can prove difficult to find. To find the best ones, take advantage of resources such as libraries and historical societies. "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," (Kitchens 2012).

Methods of Collecting Primary Data

Sometimes in your research, you'll run into the problem of not being able to track down primary sources at all. When this happens, you'll want to know how to collect your own primary data; Dan O'Hair et all tell you how: "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," (O'Hair et al. 2001).

Sources

  • Booth, Wayne C., et al. The Craft of Research. 3rd ed., University of Chicago Press, 2008.
  • Hoagland, Alison, and Gray Fitzsimmons. "History." Recording Historic Structures. 2nd. ed., John Wiley & Sons, 2004.
  • Kitchens, Joel D. Librarians, Historians, and New Opportunities for Discourse: A Guide for Clio's Helpers. ABC-CLIO, 2012.
  • Monaghan, E. Jennifer, and Douglas K. Hartman. "Undertaking Historical Research in Literacy." Handbook of Reading Research. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002.
  • O'Hair, Dan, et al. Business Communication: A Framework for Success. South-Western College Pub., 2001.
  • Sproull, Natalie L. Handbook of Research Methods: A Guide for Practitioners and Students in the Social Sciences. 2nd ed. Scarecrow Press, 1988.
  • "Using Primary Sources." Library of Congress.