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Primary Sources: Home

Pages from a Book of Hours

Pages from Albert Leffingwell's Diary

Photograph of Frances Folsom Cleveland Preston

Wells College Alma Mater


Definition of Primary Sources

What is a primary source?

A primary source is the source you are analyzing for your topic. Typically, these are historical documents such as letters, diaries, or manuscripts. However, based on the discipline in which you are doing research, your primary source may be different. Creative works such as paintings or poetry may be primary sources in the humanities, while a scientific journal article with original research is a primary source in the sciences. These are all original sources of information that the scholar then analyzes to form their own ideas.

What is a secondary source?

Secondary sources are one step removed from the topic of study. They typically analyze or interpret primary sources, and are not created contemporaneously to the event they discuss. These can include books, biographies, literary criticism, and some newspaper articles. 

Source Classification Can Change

A source can be either primary or secondary depending on your topic. For example, if a scholar is writing a paper on natural disasters, they may use a magazine article analyzing the causes of a specific natural disaster as a secondary source. However, if the scholar is writing a paper about how journalists report on natural disasters, the magazine article would be their primary source because the scholar is analyzing the journalist's analysis. A source is primary or secondary depending on the type of analysis a scholar is conducting.

Examples of Primary Sources by Discipline

Our Reference Librarian

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Rebecca Johnston
Louis Jefferson Long Library, Room 200A
Wells College
Aurora, NY

Other Guides

Additional primary sources in your discipline may be found by checking the research guide for that discipline.