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Primary & Secondary Sources in the Social Sciences & Humanities

Learn to distinguish primary and secondary sources; learn strategies for finding these materials

Primary vs Secondary?

You may hear your instructors talk about primary or secondary sources of information. What does that mean? This Guide presents definitions relevant to the social sciences and the humanities, and gives research tips on how you might find primary or secondary sources relevant to your information need.

Primary & Secondary Sources: Definitions


In the social sciences and humanities, primary sources of information are often called the "raw material" for historians. These include the words of witnesses of events or, as Jacques Barzun has called them, the first recorders of events. 1

Examples of primary sources include ...

  • contemporary accounts in newspapers, magazines and other publications from the period in question;
  • letters, diaries, memoirs, photographs;
  • government documents, and other materials. 2

Secondary sources of information are those that describe, analyze, interpret, or review your primary source. Often, secondary sources are written years after the fact, and can thus take into consideration other events, or otherwise place a primary source in historical context.

Note: Science disciplines may define "primary" and "secondary" sources differently. For example, in the sciences, original research is considered a primary source. This Guide addresses social sciences and humanities definitions.


1. Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher, 4th ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985), 124.

2. Description from Dr. Modupe Labode, as used in her ISU History 311 class, Spring 2000.

Finding sources

If you need to use primary as well as secondary sources in your research, here are some steps you may take to make the process easier:

1. Defining and Finding Primary Sources:

Remember Barzun's words, mentioned above, that primary sources are generally produced by "the first recorders of events." Keeping this in mind, consider the following:

(a) What events or topics interest you?

If you don't already have a general topic in mind, choose basic starting points to begin your research. Consult encyclopedias, historic dictionaries, or other background materials to get a clearer idea of the kind of topic you want to research. (Examples of good starting points are often found on the "Getting Started with Research" Instruction LibGuides.) Then, use basic finding tools, such as Quick Search & indexes, to identify possible primary sources on your topic. Use keyword searches to begin, adding words that describe different types of primary sources, such as:

personal narratives
travel and description

You could also browse or search through specific newspaper indexes by year, and find a topic that interests you. Indexes to the London Times or the New York Times date back to 1790 and 1851, respectively; ISU Microforms collections will have copies of the newspapers themselves on microfilm. So, depending on your interests, there are a number of paths you could take to find primary sources.

(b) Who are the "first recorders"?

It may also help to consider who might be among the "first recorders" for your topic. If you have a person or organization in mind, do an author search in Quick Search or subject-relevant indexes. Consider too that many early primary sources and historical accounts that have been published and preserved may have been produced by observers or participants who were outsiders, or foreigners to the cultures and events they described. Does this have an impact on what was recorded?

(c) What records may be left behind?

It also helps to think about what kind of records might be left behind. Generally, these can include written materials such as: diaries, letters, field notes, manuscripts, organization or corporate records, personal or travel narratives, newspaper articles, or other materials written or produced at the time of the event(s) being discussed or depicted. Primary sources can also include photographs, historic film, political posters or pamphlets, and physical objects or artifacts of all types. Written records are most likely to be available in library collections, either in manuscript form (in archives) or in published format, such as the collected and published letters of a colonial traveler. These can be published as books or reproduced on microfilm. Physical objects may occasionally be available on the Web as digitized images at specific libraries or archives, or reproduced in books and other publications.

(d) Library research vs. Web research:

Many archives are putting some of their collections online, usually in the form of full-text and digitized images. But unless you already know where and what these collections are, and what individual archives have put online, you could spend hours searching the web using familiar search engines and still not find any relevant primary sources (or secondary sources, for that matter).

In that same amount of time, you could easily search any number of specific library resources such as Quick Search, indexes, databases, and authoritative subject-focused web pages and identify all the materials you need. You would even have time left over to request items via Interlibrary Loan, have time to pick up materials in the Library, and even do some serious microfilm reading in the Media Center. Something to think about!

2. Understand the research process, and the time it takes to do your work:

Start early! Depending on your topic or what you would like to research, the best collections of primary sources for your topic may very well be at other libraries. While Interlibrary Loan makes it simple to borrow items from other libraries, you need to factor in the time it may take for your item to arrive, and the time you need to complete your assignment.

Time, topic & format:

Searching catalogs such as WorldCat, the Center for Research Libraries (CRL) databases, bibliographies, and other resources will certainly give you a good idea of the kinds of primary sources that exist on your topic. The next step will be to search Quick Search to check whether that item is available here. If not, Interlibrary Loan will be your next step. If you search the CRL databases, these items can also be requested via Interlibrary Loan, but remember too that some of these items could be on older formats such as microfilm. That means that besides using Interlibrary Loan, you may need to come to the Media Center in the Library to use microfilm readers. Many historians do their research in this way, but the key for success is to understand this when you begin so you can plan ahead and use your time well. If you can't start your project early, for whatever reason, realize that your choice of materials and topics may be limited.

3. Finding a Secondary Source:

The hard part is over! Once you've identified your primary sources, you might wish to find some secondary sources, meaning, those that describe, analyze, interpret, or review your primary source. Often, secondary sources are written years after the fact, and can thus take into consideration other events or otherwise place a primary source in historical context. Generally, secondary sources include the following:

books or monographs
scholarly journal articles or essays

You can easily locate secondary sources in Quick Search, library catalogs, and scholarly indexes, such as America: History & Life or Historical Abstracts. Again, use keyword searches to begin, and use words that describe elements of your specific topic. You can consult with a reference librarian to identify and search relevant catalogs and indexes.

4. Questions or complications?

If you have any questions about finding and using primary sources for your assignments, you should consult with your professor. If you have difficulties finding materials on your topic or using any of the resources mentioned here, please ask a librarian at the Research Help Desk for assistance.

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Primary Source Collections

Here are a few very useful collections of primary source material, available online through Library subscription!

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