Answered By: Shanna Pearson
Last Updated: Mar 12, 2018     Views: 90

A primary source is a document or object that allows you to extract first-hand information. Whether or not something is a primary source depends on your research question.

For example:

Research question:
"What were Edgar Allan Poe's views on love"

Primary sources:

  • His original poems
  • Other works he created himself such as diaries, interviews, letters, and speeches 

To know for sure what Poe's views are, we need to get as close to the original source (himself) as possible. His own writings, then, are primary sources.

What's not a primary source?

If we're using the above research question about Poe, then books, biographies, and articles about Edgar Allan Poe written by someone else would not be considered primary sources because the information you can get from them would be second-hand, i.e. the information presented has been processed (analyzed, interpreted, summarized) by another researcher. These would be secondary sources. 

But, if we were researching a different topic, these sources could be primary.

For example:

Research question:
"How do 21st century scholars interpret the work of Edgar Allan Poe?"

Our primary sources are now:

  • books, biographies, articles, and reviews by scholars

These sources that were secondary when relating to our first research question, are now primary as they can tell us first-hand how scholars interpret Poe's work. Poe's own words would not be relevant here.

How do I determine if my source is primary?

When you are trying to determine whether or not something is a primary source (in the context of your research), it can be helpful to ask yourself this question:

Am I doing a first-hand investigation of the document myself, or am I paraphrasing someone else's analysis?

Media

  • The following video by The Hartness Library describes the difference between a
    primary and secondary source:

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