Evaluating Primary Versus Secondary Sources

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Types Of Sources

  Use primary sources to help you... Use secondary sources to help you...


Gain a contemporary understanding of a subject

Get background information about or a synopsis of a subject


Interpret information YOURSELF (Note: some primary sources can be difficult to understand)

Get help from scholars who might be more specialized in a subject  (Note: be aware of possible source bias)


Write an essay that requires you to express your original understanding of a subject

Write an essay that requires you to report on what others have said about a subject (and perhaps defend YOUR informed opinion)

Most researchers will benefit from using a combination of primary and secondary sources

Some materials share features of BOTH primary and secondary sources

  • Ex. The Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville contains an original novel (primary sources) and scholarly essays about that novel (secondary sources)

Some materials could be considered primary OR secondary, depending upon the research focus

  • Ex. The article "After 9/11: Goal Disruption, Emotional Support, and Psychological Health in a Lower Exposure Sample," by MacGeorge et al., a scholarly research study published in 2007
    • Secondary source for a history paper on the significance of 9/11
    • Primary source for a medical paper on post-traumatic stress reactions to acts of terrorism

    *The Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, 1756-1843 courtesy Artstor.com