Adams State University
Nielsen Library

Nielsen Library Help Center: How to I tell a primary vs secondary source?

How to I tell a primary vs secondary source?

Primary Sources

Primary sources are objects or documents created when an event was taking place or when a study was being performed. These sources present first-hand accounts of the given events.

Primary sources may include:

  • The findings of a scientific study
  • Legal documents
  • Diaries
  • Letters
  • Speeches
  • Video footage
  • Photos
  • Art
  • Artifacts
  • Newspapers

When searching for primary sources, try adding the following keywords to your search:

  • Correspondence
  • Interview
  • Letter
  • Speech
  • Diary
  • Archive
  • Documentary
  • Manuscript
  • Catalog
  • Statistics
  • Study

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are those that were created after an event took place and analyze, interpret, or comment on primary sources. These sources were not present at the time of an event, but will often reference sources that were.

Secondary sources may include:

  • Textbooks
  • biographies
  • book reviews
  • interpretive magazine or newspaper articles.

Examples of Primary and Secondary Sources

Primary: Poor Richard's Almanac, by Benjamin Franklin

Secondary: Benjamin Franklin: an American Life, by Walter Isaacson

Primary: Video of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech

Secondary: A magazine article analyzing King's speech

Primary: A Victorian dress on display at a museum

Secondary: A book about Victorian fashion

Factors to Consider

When determining if something is a primary source, ask yourself the following:

  • When was the object or document created? Was it created at the same time as the event took place?
  • What technology was available at the time of the event? A video of something that took place before the invention of the motion picture cannot be a primary source.
  • Who's telling the story? Were they present at the event?
  • Why was the source created? Is it presenting the facts of an event, or analyzing what occurred?

Want to ask someone if your sources are primary or secondary? Contact us!

Need someone to check over your paper? Visit the Writing Studio in McDaniel Hall 220.

Find Solutions

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.