Historical Research: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

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This guide provides a brief overview of the differences between primary and secondary sources for historical research. For further information contact the Reference Department on the 2nd Floor of the AUM Library or by phone at 334-244-3649.

Primary Sources

Primary sources are first-hand accounts of an event or time in history that has yet to be interpreted by another person.

Examples of primary sources include:

  • diaries, journals, letters, interviews, speeches, memos, manuscripts and other first-person accounts
  • memoirs and autobiographies
  • official records such as government publications, census data, court reports, police records
  • minutes, reports, correspondence of an organization or agency
  • newspaper and magazine articles, viewed as a whole, during the time of the event
  • photographs, paintings, film and television programs, audio recordings which document an event
  • research such as opinion polls which document attitudes and thought during the time of an event
  • artifacts such as objects, tools, clothing, etc. of the time period or event
  • communication through multimedia venues such as listservs, chatrooms, and electronic journals

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are scholarly books or articles that are based on primary source data and analyze, critique, report, summarize, interpret, or restructure that data. They can also be based on a reading of other secondary sources or a combination of primary source data and secondary sources.

Examples of secondary sources include:

  • reference books such as encyclopedias, handbooks, etc.
  • reviews
  • textbooks
  • most scholarly books
  • most magazine and journal articles

Tertiary Sources (Finding Tools)

Tertiary sources are finding tools that index and/or document available primary and secondary sources.

Examples include:

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