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English Literature: Selected Electronic Resources

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Primary versus Secondary Sources

Primary Sources

Primary sources are original sources of information that have not yet been filtered through analysis, examination or interpretation. Typically, primary sources are contemporary to the events and individuals being researched.

Primary sources differ both in content and format from discipline to discipline. Below are examples of primary sources used by:

  • Historians: the book-keeping records of a 1920s small tobacconist; a stone inscription; the handwritten will of a nineteenth century farmer; Abraham Lincoln's ceremonial sword; the hieroglyphics on the temples of Luxor in Egypt
  • Political Scientists: the ballot form of the last mayoral race in Boston; the hearings of the 1973 Senate Watergate Committee.
  • Sociologists: the questionnaire used for some survey
  • Literary Scholars: original manuscript of Tennyson's poem In Memoriam
  • Physicists: rock from the moon
  • Biologists: blood samples from a gorilla
  • Psychologists: Notes taken when investigating an individual's post-traumatic stress disorder

Secondary Sources

A secondary source is not an original source. It has no direct physical connection to the person or event being studied. Examples of secondary sources might include: history books, articles in encyclopedias, prints of paintings, replicas of art objects, reviews of research, academic articles.

Secondary Sources are sometimes categorized as:

  • Intentional documents, e.g. biographies, memoirs, yearbooks that are composed deliberately to present a record of the past.
  • Unpremeditated documents, e.g. novels, paintings. These are created for a particular immediate purpose, but there is no real intention that they are to be utilized for historical evidence at a later date. For example, Dickens's Little Dorrit is a novel but it might also be useful for gaining insight into aspects of London in the 1850s.

It is often difficult to distinguish clearly between primary and secondary sources. Some evidence can be both, at the same time. The first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica was a secondary source when first published in 1768; but today it is a primary source to historians.