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Library Research E-Textbook - Instructor Version: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Introduction & Goals


Primary vs. Secondary Sources: Primary sources are first-hand accounts of an event (such as a historical occurance) or phenomenon (such as a scientific study), while secondary sources interpret and analyze primary sources.


By the end of this module, you will understand what primary and secondary sources are, and the basics of how to locate them.

Video on Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Watch this video to learn how to identify the differences between primary and secondary sources. The video will also provide you with examples of how to use primary and secondary sources within a paper or research project.

Primary and Secondary Sources

To complement what you learned in the video above, please read through the following information:

When your teachers say "primary source," what do they mean? Usually this term refers to a document or record containing firsthand information or original data on a topic. Primary sources include original manuscripts, articles reporting original research or thought, diaries, memoirs, letters, journals, photographs, drawings, posters, film footage, sheet music, songs, interviews, government documents, public records, eyewitness accounts, newspaper clippings, etc.

By contrast, a secondary source is a document or recording that relates or discusses information originally presented elsewhere. A secondary source contrasts with a primary source, and involves generalization, analysis, synthesis, interpretation, or evaluation of the original information.

There was a time when the only way to use primary sources was to travel all over the country (or the world) visiting museums, historical societies, and libraries with rare materials. Scholars had to obtain research grants and permission to use these collections.

Then came microfilm. Microfilm is a format that invovles a photograph being taken of an item, which is then shrunk down and transferred to a plastic film that can be easily stored and reproduced. There are large collections of primary sources available on microfilm, one of the most famous being the Gerritsen Collection of Women's History. We have a microfilm reader available in the library for your use; however, the Southworth Library does not collect a large number, and most microfilm collections will need to be requested through InterLibrary Loan.

Sometimes the only way to use primary source materials is to travel or to muddle through the microfilm, but more and more often, important materials are being digitized. If you clicked on the Gerritsen Collection above, you may have noticed that this is a digital collection, by which I mean that it's available on the computer. Some of these materials are being made available for a fee, but others are out there free of charge. Make sure to search for digital collections that may be relevant to your research.

Comparing Sources

Print and read the following worksheet outlining what types of documents are primary sources, and what types are secondary sources.


Click here to proceed to the next page of the module, Information Life Cycle & Source Types.

Activity Option 1: Source Analysis

Use the information above to find one primary source on your topic, then answer the questions in the attached worksheet.

Please consider sharing your students' work with Rachel Santose ( for assessment purposes.