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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Primary vs. Secondary Sources


Primary sources include the original data that you are researching.  For example, if you were writing an essay about the symbolism in Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, then the actual text of Romeo and Juliet would be your primary source.   If you were writing a paper about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, then your primary sources would be eyewitness accounts of the shooting. 

Some examples of primary sources are:

  • Documents: diaries, interviews, letters, speeches, autobiographies
  • Creative Works: poetry, essays, plays, novels, music, art
  • Physical Objects: buildings, clothing, artifacts

Secondary sources include data that comment on or interpret primary sources.  For example, a scholar’s analysis of the symbolism in Romeo and Juliet is a secondary source if you cited it in your paper.  An survey about the psychological effects of JFK’s assassination on the American public would also be a secondary source. 

Some examples of secondary sources are:

  • Published Works: journal articles, textbooks, reviews (book, movie)

Why Is This Important?

It’s important to notice not only how many primary and secondary sources you yourself use in your papers, but also how many of each the scholars you cite use.   The number of primary sources lets you see at a glance how much of the ideas in a report are original.  The number of secondary sources lets you see how many other scholars have done work similar to the article you’re reading and support its findings. 

One type of source isn’t necessarily better than the other, and having more of one or the other isn’t a flaw.  If you’re writing a report about a classical novel, you will have only ONE primary source: the classical novel.  No matter how many more primary sources you wish you had, there will only be the one. 

Remember, though, that it’s just as annoying on paper as it is in person when someone has no ideas of their own.  By all means, use secondary sources to lend credibility to your views, but make sure to include your own opinions in your writing.  Otherwise, the reader might as well just read the original article you’re citing instead of hearing it second hand from you.


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