Many university assessments will ask you to find, evaluate and use primary and secondary sources. This guide explains key differences between primary and secondary sources. It also gives you tips for how to find and critically evaluate these sources.
In simple terms, primary sources provide original evidence or first-hand accounts.
Secondary sources summarise, interpret or analyse primary sources.
To put these definitions into practice, an example of a primary source you might use in a History essay are the letters of author Jane Austen. These letters are a primary source because they are first-hand accounts by the author herself. However, a book or journal article written by a historian which analyses Jane Austen’s letters to discuss her views on gender, is a secondary source. This is because it uses a primary source (Austen’s letters) to interpret and analyse Austen’s views on gender.
The definitions above are a broad way of understanding the key differences between a primary and secondary source.
Primary and secondary sources come in many different formats. Many disciplines have commonly used ‘types’ of primary sources. The table below lists common primary sources used within various disciplines.
|Common Primary Sources|
|Anthropology and History||
Letters, diaries, archival records, field notes, historical newspaper articles.
Buildings, architectural models, drawings, photographs.
|Business, Management and Marketing||
Company reports, financial statements, meeting minutes, market surveys, corporate policies and codes.
|Health and Science||
Journal articles reporting on original results/research, scientific/health data, laboratory notes, technical reports.
|Law and Criminology||
Case law, legislation.
|Literature and Creative Arts||
Artworks, films, documentaries, photographs, novels, picture books, autobiographies, manuscripts, performances.
Speeches, statistics, surveys, interviews, social media, advertisements, government information.
Secondary sources vary less by discipline. Common secondary sources used across disciplines include: