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What are primary and secondary sources?

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Primary sources are documents that contain first-hand information or original data on a topic. They are works created at the time of the event, by a person who directly experienced or reported on it at that time. They can come in many formats including: letters, diaries, journals, hand-written notes, newspaper articles, government documents, ephemera, or magazines. 

Secondary sources are documents that are one step removed from the original source, event or experience. These works may describe, analyze, evaluate, or be derived from or based on a primary source. Secondary sources may critique or interpret a primary source. Examples of secondary sources include literature reviews, biographies, textbooks, or articles that explore documents from the past. 

 

Examples by Subject

Subject Primary Source Secondary Source
English A poem A journal article or book that analyzes the poem
History A diary written by a historical figure An article that discusses the significance of the diary, or analyzes the historical context in which the diary was written
Sociology A study that interviews youth on their use of social media and experiences with bullying A news report about the study and its findings
Psychology An empirical study on the impact of clothing bias on mugshot identification accuracy A blog post that discusses the results
Biology An empirical study on species size and coexistence A systematic review article about species coexistence that mentions the empirical study

Adapted from University of Toronto Libraries "What is a secondary source?"