Identifying and Using Primary Sources

Primary sources broadly refers to where information originates. Disciplines use sources differently, so what may be a primary source for a researcher in the English department may be useless to someone in Physics. Below we will break down what various disciplines consider primary resources, and where you can find them!

STEM

STEM fields often refer to primary resources as "original research." This means they are publishing results from experiments, fieldwork, clinical trials, or other that they themselves have conducted. Check our our guide on Finding and Identifying Original Research.

Note about indexing- major publications submit citations and abstracts to these databases. Links to full-text may be available, but these do not provide direct access.

Arts

In the various arts, primary resources are the original work:

  • An original painting
  • A sculpture
  • Music
  • Plays, television shows, and movies
  • Performances

Analysis is key

Reproduction may cause confusion on whether a source is primary, secondary, or even tertiary. Many paintings and songs are "remixed" after their creation, these would be secondary resources due to their analysis or interpretation of the original work. Similarly, adaptations of novels and plays would be secondary sources, while the performance may still be considered a primary source.

Humanities

This section will approach historical, literary, and religious studies primary sources. these fields tend to rely heavily on text sources originating at the time of an event:

  • novels and poems
  • Diaries, oral histories, or autobiographies
  • Newspapers
  • Original manuscripts
  • Mundane documents (e.g. wills, police arrest records)
  • Non-text: photographs, and artifacts (e.g. clothing

 

Many primary sources may not exist in their original format. However, generally you can determine if a source is primary based on: when it was created, and who created it. A key outlier is religious and philosophical texts. 

In historical research, sources should be contemporary to an event. If it was produced afterward, it should be a first-hand account. 

For religious studies and philosophy, the original texts are primary sources. However, the writings of faith organizations and leaders in particular will also be primary sources regardless of their own analysis/interpretation. 

 

Sticking Points

Translated works are assumed to have analysis or interpretation, but may serve as primary sources. You will need to research the translation, or discuss with your instructor.

Social Media- it can be hard to identify where a post may have originated, but social media functions similarly to diaries as personal accounts. These may also share news or excerpts from books- in those instances find the original source.

Social Sciences

The social sciences utilize the widest range of primary resources. From psychological studies, archaeological digs, and text analysis, your discipline may use any of the following:

Other Documents

The following types of resources are commonly accepted as primary sources in a variety of disciplines, links will lead to in-depth guides or database lists:

  • Government Information
  • Newspapers
  • Data and Statistics
  • Images- view local image collections on Digital Horizons
    • Most resources listed in this guide contain images, check for manipulation and observe copyright laws.