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WRI 161/162: Speaking American: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

How do primary and secondary sources differ?

The Standard Definition

In historical writing, a primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. These sources were present during an experience or time period and offer an inside view of a particular event. Some types of primary sources include:

* ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS (excerpts or translations acceptable): Diaries, speeches, manuscripts, letters, interviews, news film footage, autobiographies, official records
* CREATIVE WORKS: Poetry, drama, novels, music, art
* RELICS OR ARTIFACTS: Pottery, furniture, clothing, buildings

Examples of primary sources include:

* Diary of Anne Frank - Experiences of a Jewish family during WWII
* The Constitution of Canada - Canadian History
* A journal article reporting NEW research or findings
* Weavings and pottery - Native American history
* Plato's Republic - Women in Ancient Greece

What is a secondary source?
A secondary source interprets and analyzes primary sources. These sources are one or more steps removed from the event. Secondary sources may have pictures, quotes or graphics of primary sources in them. Some types of seconday sources include:

* PUBLICATIONS: Textbooks, magazine articles, histories, criticisms, commentaries, encyclopedias

Examples of secondary sources include:

* A journal/magazine article which interprets or reviews previous findings
* A history textbook
* A book about the effects of WWI

Search by keyword for Primary Sources in the Main Catalog
You can search the Main Catalog to find direct references to primary source material. Perform a keyword search for your topic and add one of the words below:
(these are several examples of words that would identify a source as primary)

* charters
* correspondence
* diaries
* early works
* interviews
* manuscripts
* oratory
* pamphlets
* personal narratives
* sources
* speeches
* letters
* documents

 

Another Possible Usage

PRIMARY SOURCE (more frequently PRIMARY TEXT) is sometimes used in a different sense in some types of classes. In a literature class, for example, the primary source might be a novel about which you are writing, and secondary sources those sources also writing about that novel (i.e., literary criticism). However, if you were writing about the literary criticism itself and making an argument about literary theory and the practice of literary criticism, some would use the term PRIMARY SOURCE to refer to the criticism about which you are writing, and secondary sources other sources also making theoretical arguments about the practice of literary criticism. In this second sense of primary source, whatever you are primarily writing ABOUT becomes the primary source, and secondary sources are those sources also writing about that source. Often this will be called the PRIMARY TEXT, but some people do use primary source with this meaning.

 

Tertiary Sources

Just so you can keep up with all the scholarly jargon about sources, a tertiary source is a source that builds upon secondary sources to provide information. The most common example is an encyclopedia. Consider a particular revolution as an historical event. All the documents from the time become primary sources. All the historians writing later produce secondary sources. Then someone reads those secondary sources and summarizes them in an encyclopedia article, which becomes a tertiary source. If someone then collected a bibliography of encyclopedia articles on the topic, that might be a quarternary source, but at that point the whole thing just becomes silly.

Examples of Multilingual Primary Sources by Genre

Novels - Check out the The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy for her interesting use of Malayalam and English.

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Ephemera - Check out the Digital Archive of Latin American and Caribbean Ephemera. In particular, you may explore pedagogical materials such as this item on multicultural policy and indigenous alphabets in Bolivia.

Film - Check out the film The Lunchbox by Ritesh Batra.

Music - Check out K-pop band SF9's O Sole Mio for its mixture of Korean, Italian, and more.