Evaluating Sources

Primary vs Secondary Sources

Criteria Use Primary Sources To Help You… Use Secondary Sources To Help You…
Understand Gain a contemporary understanding of a subject Get background information about or a synopsis of a subject
Interpret 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 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