Practicing source-ery: Utilizing primary and secondary sources

Primary and secondary sourcesPrimary and secondary sources

Now that research paper-writing season is well underway, you may be hearing your professors discussing the need for primary sources as well as secondary sources. Sidney Silverman Library at Bergen Community College (NJ) offers a straightforward definition of the difference between primary and secondary sources. “Primary sources are original materials such as autobiographies, poems, diaries, documents, research articles, original data, or an original creation such as a piece of art.”  Materials that “describe, explain or interpret primary sources,” they explain, are secondary sources. “These include literature criticism, biographies, books about a topic, reviews, encyclopedias and dictionaries.” A well-written research paper includes a range of primary and secondary sources throughout in order to have a well-balanced collection of resources and facts. Learn how to distinguish between the two and discover some lesser known resources for each!

In Primary vs. Secondary, they also provide this useful checklist of examples:

Primary sources

  • autobiography
  • painting or object of art
  • personal diary or letters
  • treaty (government document)
  • poem, novel, short story, etc.
  • firsthand observer accounts of event
  • play, film, television show, performance
  • speech given by a person
  • research report by researchers
  • photographs

Secondary sources

  • biography
  • article reviewing or criticizing the art
  • book about the person or event
  • essay interpreting the document
  • literary criticism of the work
  • report on event years later
  • biography of the writer
  • commentary on the speech
  • interpretation of the research
  • explanation of photographs

Primary sources online

“Tens of thousands of archival collections can be found on the web,” says Leslie F. Stebbins. “These digitized primary resources provide researchers with unprecedented access to collections that previously were only available in one location and kept behind locked doors.” Also available online, notes the author of Student Guide to Research in the Digital Age: How to Locate and Evaluate Information Sources (Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2006), 68. are “information (which) indicates what is owned by a particular archive and…search aids that give a detailed inventory of the holdings of a particular collection and other descriptive information.”

In Find Digitized Primary Source Collections on the Web, Stebbins guides researchers to some larger online digital library collections, archival search engines and “tools that point to digitized and print collections,” and information on collections available outside the U.S.

And “If you have some flexibility with the topic you are working on,” the author suggests, “you might want to try one of the larger collections such as the American Memory Project. Locate an interesting collection and work backward to the development of your topic.”

Become a master of the primary and secondary resources, and you’ll have thoroughly researched term paper that both you and your professor can be happy with!

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