Skip to main content

Paideia 112 Research Unit

Identifying Characteristics

Primary sources are materials that provide direct evidence or firsthand ("first in time") testimony about your topic. The following characteristics distinguish primary source material from secondary sources. Primary sources:

  • Provide direct evidence about the topic being studied
  • Are generated at or close to the time of an event or other topic
  • Are created by participants or observers of an event, time period, or other topic 
Source Type

Examples

Primary
A primary source is a first person account by someone who experienced or witnessed an event. This original document has not been previously published or interpreted by anyone else.

  • First person account of an event
  • First publication of a scientific study
  • Speech or lecture
  • Original artwork
  • Handwritten manuscript
  • Letters between two people
  • A diary
  • Historical documents, e.g. Bill of Rights

Secondary
A secondary source is one step removed from the primary original source. The author is reexamining, interpreting and forming conclusions based on the information that is conveyed in the primary source.

  • Scholarly Article
  • Newspaper reporting on a scientific study
  • Review of a music CD or art show
  • Biography

Tertiary
A tertiary source is further removed from primary source. It leads the researcher to a secondary source, rather than to the primary source.

  • Bibliography
  • Index to articles
  • Library catalog

 

How to Locate Primary Sources

Books

Primary sources are sometimes republished as books. Try a search in WorldCat using a keyword(s) that describes your topic in combination with one or more of the following terms: memoirs, letters, diaries, correspondence, papers, laws, documents.

Search Preus Library and beyond

Limit results to:
Advanced Search

Articles
Preus Library has journals, magazines, and newspapers that go back many decades. Articles from newspapers and magazines written at the time an event occurred can be a good source of primary information.

Newspaper Archives
Historical newspapers are an excellent primary source for investigating events of a certain time period. Many of the major newspapers are available electronically going back to their inception. Visit our News Source page to find a variety of titles, including the New York Times (1851-present).

College Archives
The Luther College Archives is located on the Upper Floor of Preus Library and is available for students during open research hours. The Archives contains the historical records of the college and the personal papers of people affiliated with the college. Contact the Archives by email or phone (x1805) to set up a research appointment. Visit the Luther College Archives home page.

Web Resources
An increasing number of web sites offer digital versions of primary sources, and can be an excellent resource photographs, scanned images of original documents, reprints of diaries and letters. Some sites are specific to a certain event or era, while others provide more wide-ranging historical documents.

Primary Sources by Area of Study

The definition of a primary source may vary depending upon the discipline or context.

  • In the Humanities, in a discipline such as history or English, a primary source is something that was created during the time period being studied or afterward by individuals who participated in the events of that time.  Examples include letters, diaries, correspondence, newspaper reports, laws, etc.
  • In the Social Sciences, such as sociology or psychology, numerical data and research results from experiments or surveys are other examples of primary sources.
  • In the Sciences, such as biology or chemistry, primary sources might be reports on original research or ideas. These are often reported as research articles in scholarly journals.
Content © Luther College Library and Information Services, 700 College Drive, Decorah, IA 52101 (563) 387-1166 Creative Commons License