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Michigan State University

Introduction to History Research at MSU: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary sources provide direct or firsthand evidence about an event, person, or object. These sources are contemporary to the events and people described. In the context of historical research, primary sources are sources that were created during the specific time period being studied. 

How can I tell if something is a primary source?

Whether a resource can be considered a primary source depends heavily on your specific research question and on the context (the who, what, when, where, and why) of the source you are examining.

To determine whether something can be considered a primary source, first consider your research question: Who or what are you researching? What time period are you focusing on? What region? 

Once you've thought about the who/ what/ where/ when of your topic, ask similar questions of the source:

  • Who created this source?
  • What is this about?
  • When was it written?
  • Who is the targeted audience?

By answering these questions, you can develop a basic understanding of the context surrounding that source, and how it relates to your research question or topic.

Some examples of primary sources include: 

  • Newspaper articles
  • Diaries
  • Letters
  • Memoirs and autobiographies
  • Speeches
  • Photographs
  • Novels, poems
  • Government documents

Secondary sources were produced sometime after an event took place. Unlike primary sources, secondary sources do not provide firsthand evidence. Instead, they provide information that has been analyzed or interpreted in some way. Secondary sources often analyze information that has been gathered from various primary sources.


Examples of secondary sources include:

  • Book reviews
  • Scholarly articles (those that interpret or analyze other sources)
  • Literature reviews
  • Biographies

Understanding the Difference Between Primary and Secondary Sources

Below are some additional resources that explain the differences between primary and secondary sources and key questions you can ask to determine if a source falls into one category or another.