Picture this: Your professor has just assigned a research project. They’re going through the guidelines: must be a certain number of pages, has to be double-spaced and in 12-point Times New Roman font, has to have a bibliography, etc. But then they say something you haven’t heard before: the project must have at least three-to-five primary sources.
So, what exactly is a primary source? Well, let’s back up a little. While doing research, it’s important to use sources to support the claims that you’re making and explain the evidence behind what you’re saying. A strong research project will always have sources. It lends the project credibility and gives you a better understanding of your subject (not to mention, it helps you avoid plagiarism charges).
With all that in mind, let’s get back to primary sources. In the broadest term possible, a primary source is something directly written about the subject of your research. They were created at the same time as the subject and were written about people who were there to see the subject take place. Think of them as “the raw materials of history” (Wesson). Primary sources can come in any kind of format, such as government reports, journals and autobiographies. Even other research papers (specifically those published in scholarly journals) can be primary sources!
But sometimes, you may find a source that was written about a primary source—things like textbooks, newspaper articles, and biographies. Those are called secondary sources. Although secondary sources don’t have the same type of “lived experience” as a primary source, they’re still quite valuable for contextualizing primary sources against new evidence, as well as helping you contextualize your own opinions on the subject (Streefkerk). Sometimes there can be an overlap between primary and secondary sources. For example: while news articles are considered secondary sources, the quotes in them can be primary sources if they were taken from people who witnessed or were involved with the subject. It mostly depends on your research question (“Primary Sources: A Research Guide”). Either way, no great research project is complete without either of them.
So now that we know what a primary source is, that leaves us with one question: Why are they so important? Well, primary sources allow a more in-depth look at a subject because it was written by someone who had tangible experience with it. Not to mention, there are less chances of bias or other people’s interpretation of the subject affecting them. You may not be able to find the full, unvarnished truth about a subject, but primary sources are often the closest thing to it.
Good luck, and happy writing!
“Primary Sources: A Research Guide.” Healey Library, https://umb.libguides.com/PrimarySources/secondary. Accessed 7 April 2023.
Streefkerk, Raimo. “Primary vs. Secondary Sources | Difference & Examples.” Scribbr, 20 June 2018, https://www.scribbr.com/working-with-sources/primary-and-secondary-sources/. Accessed 7 April 2023.
Wesson, Stephen. “What Makes a Primary Source a Primary Source?” Library of Congress Blogs, 4 October 2011, https://blogs.loc.gov/teachers/2011/10/what-makes-a-primary-source-a-primary-source/. Accessed 7 April 2023.