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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

What is a primary source?

A primary source is a document or other piece of evidence written or created during the time being studied, or by one of the persons or organizations directly involved with the event. Some examples of primary sources include:

  • Original Documents: Diaries, speeches, letters, minutes, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records
  • Creative Works: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art, films
  • Relics or Artifacts: Jewelry, pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings, tools
  • Statistics: public opinion polls, census data, labor statistics

What is a secondary source?

Secondary sources 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.

Why use primary sources?

When doing historical research, primary sources can give you a more personal view of the period or event you are researching. While secondary sources (sources created after the fact) can be useful for looking back at an event or time more critically through the lens of "what happened next," primary sources can tell you how the people at the time you are studying felt about the events happening around them

Where to find primary sources

You can find primary sources in newspapers, archives and special collections, or databases that specialize in a given topic (i.e. Historical Statistics of the United States). A few examples are pulled out below: 

Discover documents from over 500 years of world history through digitized, text-searchable primary sources.

Search 14 major historical U.S. newspapers collectively or individually. Time period covered ranges from 1764 up through 4 years ago. 

  •  Media Center - ISU Library 

    Access a wide range of media and collections in the Media Center, including maps, movies and TV shows, educational films, audio books, music, the Microforms Collection, and audiovisual equipment.

Where to find secondary sources

Generally, secondary sources include the following:

  • books or monographs
  • scholarly journal articles or essays

You can locate secondary sources in Quick Search, library catalogs, and scholarly indexes. 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, or try one of these:

Your Librarian

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Library Instruction Services
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Primary Source Collections

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