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Arts Management @ UTSC

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary sources are:

  • created at the time of an event
  • created by a person who witnessed an event
  • things like: paintings, drawings, letters, diaries, newspapers

Secondary sources are:

  • works that discuss a subject, but which are written after the time that the event(s) occurred (by someone other than an eyewitness)
  • works that contain explanations/analysis/judgements/discussions of past events
  • works that explain or interpret primary sources

How to tell the difference:

A primary source is a document that was created at the time of the event or subject you've chosen to study, or by people who were observers of, or participants in that event or topic.

The medium of the primary source can be anything, including written texts, objects, buildings, films, paintings, cartoons, etc. What makes the source a primary source is when it was made, not what it is.

Books written by historians about a topic are secondary sources. Historians' introductions to and editorial comments on collections of primary documents are also secondary sources because they're twice removed from the actual event or process you're going to be writing about. So while a historian's introduction to Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle (1906) is a secondary source, the novel itself, written in 1906, is a primary source.

Adapted from "Writing about History" by Elspeth Brown

Examples of Primary Sources

Official Records

Cabinet papers, diplomatic dispatches, legislation and case law, parish records, parliamentary debates, ambassador's reports,  treaties, censuses, and statistics

Published Sources

Newspapers, magazines, literature, songs, hyms, advertisements, interviews, speeches, memoirs, autobiographies, pamphlets/treatises, works of art, photographs, television and radio shows

Private Sources

Letters, wills, diaries, contracts (marriage, purchase, etc.), home video and audio recordings, receipts, leases, loans, petitions, birth and death certificates