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Ekstrom Library

HIST 528/612 Recent American History 1929-1945: Primary vs. Secondary

Primary Source

A primary source is an original object or document - the raw material or first-hand information, source material  that is closest to what is being studied. 

Primary sources vary by discipline and can include:

  • historical and legal documents,
  • eye witness accounts,
  • results of an experiment*,
  • statistical data,
  • creative writing,
  • art objects.

Secondary Source

A secondary source is something written about a primary source. Secondary sources include:

  • comments on, interpretations of, or discussions about the original material
  • articles in newspapers and magazines*
  • reviews of books and movies
  • articles in scholarly journals that evaluate someone else's original research

Think of secondary sources as second-hand information. If I tell you something, I am the primary source. If you tell someone else what I told you, you are the secondary source. 


  Primary Source Secondary Source
"Child Star: An Autobiography" by Shirley Temple Black (1988) Boring, Phyllis Zatlin. "Shirley Temple: Feminist Heroine?" Women's Studies Newsletter 3, no. 2 (1975): 11.

J. Robert Oppenheimer Interview, Voices of the Manhattan Project

Groves, Leslie R. Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project. [1st Ed.] ed. New York: Harper, 1962.
U. S. census data An article using census data to support its argument

Executive Order 9066: Resulting in the Relocation of Japanese (1942)

Reeves, Richard. Infamy:The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War Ii. First ed. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015.


Primary or Secondary

You can't always determine if something is primary or secondary just because of the source it is found in.

Articles in newspapers and magazines are usually considered secondary sources. However, if a story in a newspaper about a specific battle in World War II is an eyewitness account, that would be a primary source.  

Scholarly journals include research articles with primary materials, but they also have review articles that are not, or in some disciplines include articles where scholars are looking at primary source materials and coming to new conclusions.


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