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FYS 10 - Power of Tradition, Forces of Change: Home


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Andrew Welch
Cowles Library
Office 218


What are Primary Sources?

What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence about a topic or question under investigation.

They are typically created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Primary sources are often created at the time the events or conditions are occurring, but they can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later.

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

What are they?

  Primary Source Secondary Source
  • Original, first-hand account of an event or time period
  • Original, creative writing or works of art
  • Usually written or created during or close to the event or time period
  • Not interpretive
  • Analyzes and interprets primary sources
  • Second-hand account of an historical event
  • Interprets creative work
  • Report of scientific discoveries
  • Results of experiments
  • Results of clinical trials
  • Social and political science research results
  • Factual, not interpretive
  • Analyzes and interprets research results
  • Analyzes and interprets scientific discoveries



  Primary Sources Secondary Sources
  • Diaries, journals, and letters
  • Newspaper and magazine articles (factual accounts)
  • Government records (census, marriage, military)
  • Photographs, maps, postcards, posters
  • Recorded or transcribed speeches
  • Interviews with participants or witnesses (e.g., The Civil Rights Movement)
  • Interviews with people who lived during a particular time (e.g., genocide in Rwanda)
  • Songs, plays, novels, stories
  • Paintings, drawings, and sculptures
  • Literary criticism
  • Biographies
  • Books and articles presenting the research of others
  • Published results of research studies
  • Published results of scientific experiments
  • Published results of clinical trials
  • Proceedings of conferences and meetings
  • Publications about the significance of research or experiments
  • Analysis of a clinical trial
  • Review of the results of several experiments or trials


Specific Examples

  Primary Source Secondary Source
Literature “Song of Myself” (Poem) Journal article about the poem’s historical importance
Psychology Results of clinical trial to treat ADD by modifying diet Book about ways to treat childhood ADD without drugs
Government U.S. Census Statistics Book about suburban population changes in U.S.
History Text of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech Journal article about King's role in the Civil Rights Movement
Art Ding Darling cartoons Magazine article about political cartoonists of the 20th century
Sociology Diary of Anne Frank Book contrasting personal accounts of the German occupation

Primary Sources at Cowles

Cowles Library subscribes to a number of useful primary source collections (and we even have some of our own!)