Difference between a Primary and a Secondary source
Whether conducting research in the social sciences, humanities (especially history), arts, or natural sciences, the ability to distinguish between primary and secondary source material is essential. Basically, this distinction illustrates the degree to which the author of a piece is removed from the actual event being described, informing the reader as to whether the author is reporting impressions first hand (or is first to record these immediately following an event), or conveying the experiences and opinions of others that is, second hand. Resources provide the information needed in order to make sense of an event. When conducting research, whether it’s about a famous battle, the life of a celebrated author, or a chemistry experiment, researchers should be using a range of reliable resources. What people need to be aware of, however, is that there are different types of resource which offer different kinds of information and should be used in different ways. The two main types are called primary and secondary resources.
These are contemporary accounts of an event, written by someone who experienced or witnessed the event in question. These original documents (i.e., they are not about another document or account) are often diaries, letters, memoirs, journals, speeches, manuscripts, interviews and other such unpublished works. They may also include published pieces such as newspaper or magazine articles (as long as they are written soon after the fact and not as historical accounts), photographs, audio or video recordings, research reports in the natural or social sciences, or original literary or theatrical works.
The function of these is to interpret primary sources, and so can be described as at least one step removed from the event or phenomenon under review. Secondary source materials, then, interpret, assign value to, conjecture upon, and draw conclusions about the events reported in primary sources. These are usually in the form of published works such as journal articles or books but may include radio or television documentaries, or conference proceedings
Examples of primary and secondary sources
- Written texts biographies, stories and plays, textbooks, literary criticism, theatre or film reviews, opinion pieces in newspapers and magazines, analysis of experiments or clinical trials.
- Visual texts – historical movies and plays, paintings and drawings, recreations of events
- Audio texts – music recordings, interviews, talk show discussions
- It will be noted that some of these resources appear on both.
- We have put together a list of examples of primary and secondary sources by field of study. It will help you in identifying if your source is of primary or secondary nature.
Why do I need to use both primary and secondary sources in my research?
Using both types of sources adds to the merit of your research. By including references to secondary sources you are showing that you have truly engaged with your research topic. You are providing extra information and displaying a well-rounded approach to your topic. You are not relying solely on the work of one person or one institution, for your analysis to be based upon. You are reading broadly and contextually.
Likewise, including primary source references in your research shows that you are also going back to the roots. You are looking at the event or object as it happened, without being able to teleport through time and space. A primary source is vital because it will enable you to make your own judgement on an event or object. Secondary sources are always biased, in one sense or another, so engaging with the primary source yourself allows you to view the topic objectively.
Primary and secondary sources complement each other - looking at both can give you a deeper understanding of each. A primary source can help you to evaluate a secondary source - you will notice aspects of it which the author dismisses, or washes over in their discussion. Likewise, a secondary source can tell you about current trends in research and analysis, while providing you with a broad overview or summary of an extended period of time, or the works of an artist.