Skip to Main Content

Finding, Researching, and Using Primary Resources


Primary Resources are documents, letters, accounts, descriptions, photographs, or drawings of an individual, organizations, or set of records that were created temporarily to the events that these resources described.  These records tend to be unique, specialized, or rare objects, where few copies tend to exist in the world.  These records offer unique insight on how events happen, insight on individuals, as well as our understanding of social norms. 

 As a result, examining primary resources rather than historical treaties, books, and analysis can offer new insight on historical events.  In addition, some of the records or information about events were not available to historians at the time when they wrote a historical text.  For example, only in 2020 the sound Recordings of Richard Nixon’s Meeting/Telephone Conversation from 1971 to 1973 had been declassified and available to anyone to examine.  (For a full list of the most recent declassified document list:

Most of these primary resources are located inside archives or special collections.  Special Collections and archives exist to create access to these primary resources.  However, these resources are organized differently from libraries in types of materials that they hold, how to access, and the process on how to search for relevant materials to your research.  This document is a primer on strategies and methods on how to find and recall materials that are relevant to your topic.

Primary Sources vs. Secondary Recources


Primary Sources are records created or made by individuals who were there at an event in the past. Compared to secondary sources, which are records made after the event has happened and have the benefit of hindsight when writing about a past event.  The ability to examine original records allows us to clarify our understanding of past events.

Whereas secondary sources potentially have bias and unconscious views infuse how they talk about an given event.  Secondary Sources may discount the contribution made by individuals or groups of people.  It is hard to know if this is happening in your source unless you can compare primary sources to secondary sources.


Example of Primary Sources


Photographs Oral Histories Letters


Example of Secondary Sources

Photographs Books
Analysis or Interpretation of Information

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Sources in Disciplines

Using the Source

What is considered a primary source can vary depending on how you are using the source. 

For instance, if you were analyzing how authors of popular magazine articles discussed the Boeing 737 MAX crashes, the magazine articles would serve as your primary sources.  However, if you cited from a magazine article for your research paper on airline safety, the magazine would serve as a secondary source.

Different Disciplines

Disciplines may be more or less likely to work with specific types of primary sources. See this chart for examples.  If you unsure what is considered a primary source in your discipline, consult with your faculty instructor.

Discipline Humanities Sciences Social Sciences
Primary Source Examples creative works, diaries, interviews, news footage, maps

results of experiments, research and clinical trials

census data, statistics, results of experiments on human behavior
Secondary Source Examples books, journal articles, textbooks

books, journal articles, textbooks

books, journal articles, textbooks
Tertiary Source Examples reference materials, databases reference materials, databases

reference materials, databases