How do I know if a source is primary?

Primary sources are materials (data, government documents, photographs, letters, etc.) that are used by scholars to produce secondary sources (original research published in books and scholarly articles). Some library databases include primary sources (e.g. historical newspaper articles), but many primary sources are found on the internet or in books.

Before using a primary source (especially one found through Google), you should:

  • Be able to cite the source of the original material
  • Who is responsible for creating the material? When was it created?
  • Be able to determine the person or organization responsible for providing access
  • Others should be able to confirm the authenticity and accuracy of any primary source you include in your research.
  • Consider the authenticity of the material
  • Could a document be fake? How was data collected? Does the site hosting the material have a stake in misleading you?
  • Determine whether special software is required to view and/or use the material
  • The authority and accuracy of your research depends on others being able to see what you saw, and use what you used.
  • Assess whether the material / content can be supported or contradicted by other sources
  • What do secondary sources say about the primary source you’d like to use?
  • Identify other sources that will support any conclusion you draw
  • Anticipate the questions or concerns others may have about your primary source, then find other (secondary) sources that will support your research.

When/Why do I use a primary source?

  • When you need a historical perspective on an issue.
  • Primary sources can provide a context when examining historic or social events (for example, if you were studying School Desegregation and the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court case, newspapers from that time would give you a perspective about the opinions that were current and other events going on at the same time).
  • When you need the official “voice” of a government.
  • “A government’s documents are direct evidence of its activities, functions, and policies. For any research that relates to the workings of government, government documents are indispensible primary sources. “
  • When you need statistical data.
  • Raw data are direct evidence of phenomena that can be analyzed for deeper meaning.

Test: Popular

Explore the image below — mouseover the targets to learn more about the characteristics of a primary source. This example uses data tables (found on a website), but the elements discussed also apply to some books, articles, and websites.

"Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) in the United States: Facts and Figures."US Environmental Protection Agency. United States Environmental Protection Agency. 15 November 2012. Web. 23 January 2013.

Be able to cite the source of the original material.

In order to properly cite this source, you will need the URL.

Consider the authenticity of the material.

Could a document be fake? How was data collected? Does the site hosting the material have a stake in misleading you?

Is special software required to view and/or use the material?

Remember, the authority and accuracy of your research (and your grade) depends on others being able to see what you saw, and use what you used.

Be able to cite the source of the original material.

Who is responsible for creating the material? When was it created?

Be able to cite the source of the original material.

Make sure to keep track of the Table Number (or the title) of any table that you take data from.

Be able to cite the source of the original material.

Make sure that you cite the material, and not the website hosting the material.

Be able to determine the person or organization responsible for providing access

Others should be able to confirm the authenticity and accuracy of any primary source you include in your research.

Assess whether the material / content can be supported or contradicted by other sources.

What do secondary sources say about the data you've found?

Be able to cite the source of the original material.

Make sure to keep track of the Table Number (or the title) of any table that you take data from.

Be able to cite the source of the original material.

Make sure to keep track of the Table Number (or the title) of any table that you take data from.

Assess whether the material / content can be supported or contradicted by other sources.

What do secondary sources say about the data you've found?

Be able to cite the source of the original material.

Make sure to keep track of the Table Number (or the title) of any table that you take data from

Identify other sources that will support any conclusion you draw.

Anticipate the questions or concerns others may have about your primary source, then find other (secondary) sources that will support your research.

Assess whether the material / content can be supported or contradicted by other sources.

What do secondary sources say about the data you've found?

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