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Primary and Secondary sources

What is a primary source?

A primary source is an original source that documents an event in time, a person or an idea.

Some examples of primary sources are:

  • raw data
  • original research (journal articles, books) 
  • diary entries, letters and other correspondence
  • photographs, artifacts
  • audio or video broadcasts (that catch events as they unfold) e.g. Real-estate film shot at Hatley Park c.1938 from DSpace@RRU
  • eyewitness accounts or interviews
  • legal documents, government documents, public records (e.g. birth certificates)
  • records or other documents created by organizations

What is a secondary source?

Secondary sources build upon primary resources by analyzing, interpreting, synthesizing or discussing them.  

Examples would be:

  • books
  • journal articles (that do not provide original research)

A good way to determine whether or not a source you are evaluating is primary or secondary in nature is to ask yourself:

"Is this 'first-hand' information or 'second-hand' information?"

If you said 'first-hand' then it is likely a primary source.  If you said 'second-hand', then it's likely a secondary source. 

However, there is not always such a clear delineation.  A secondary source may also be a primary source, depending on the context its used in. 

Examples:

Primary Source Secondary Source
Newspaper Interview of Gilles Duceppe Newpaper article written post-interview, evaluating Duceppe's comments
Census data collected by Statistics Canada An article using Census data to discuss population trends
Diaries or letters from soldiers during World War II A book about the effects of WWII on soldiers

Tertiary sources – you mean there's more?

Tertiary sources provide overviews of topics, digesting other primary and secondary sources into summaries of information. 

Examples of tertiary sources are:

  • encyclopedias
  • textbooks
  • almanacs

Another way to look at it is that all three categories of sources reflect the timing of the publication cycle, with primary being first and tertiary being last.

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