Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Introduction to this Topic:

Primary and Secondary Sources (online video)

In this guide:

Comparison of Primary and Secondary Sources

Not all sources provide information from the same vantage point.  Students need to consider whether a research project requires the use of primary or secondary sources, or both.





First-hand account of an event, an original work A work that interprets, summarizes or analyzes an historical event or phenomenon, generally at least one step removed from the event


  • Autobiographies, letters, e-mails, diaries, speeches, interviews
  • Documents, laws, treaties
  • Raw data that has been collected
  • Works of literature, art, music
  • Newspaper accounts of events, by someone on the scene
  • Articles, books, biographies which summarize, interpret the original statements, documents
  • Encyclopedias, dictionaries, textbooks
  • Analyses of statistics
  • Criticism -- of literature, art, music
  • Secondary accounts of events by those who compile and synthesize the original accounts


Primary Sources in the University Library

University Library Catalog
AUTHOR search:  to find materials someone has written
KEYWORD search:  combine a topic, keyword, or person's name with a term like: autobiography, personal narratives, letters, correspondence, diaries, or memoirs.  For example:  Indians of North America narratives

Tip: "sources" is the official subject sub-heading used in the Library Catalog & WorldCat to describe primary sources. e.g. The subject heading "Crusades--Sources" indicates the work contains primary sources on the crusades.

Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature Retrospective
Index to historical articles published in magazines from 1890 to 1982. Check Library Catalog to see if the article is available in the University Library, or use Interlibrary Loan to request the article from another library.
Special Collections
The University Archives contain official documents from the university's past.
Other special collections include primary source materials on local history.
Early English Books Online
Full-text of over 100,000 books published in the English language (primarily from Britain) from the 15th - 17th centuries
The University Library has issues of local and national newspapers in microfilm dating back to the 18th century.
Many current newspapers (from the 1980's to the present) are available via one of the library's Newspaper Databases.
Government Documents
The Library is a partial depository for federal, state, and local documents.  The library web page has links to search engines for all documents and for those held in this library.
Research Datasets:

Social Science Research Data.

Access to original government, public opinion, and research data sets, which can be analyzed using statistical software like SPSS.

RAND California.  A wide range of statistics about California.

FedStats.  The gateway to statistics from over 100 U.S. Federal agencies.

Primary Sources in Other Libraries

Many primary sources have been republished in books and other formats and may be found in other libraries. In addition, research libraries and institutions have special, rare collections of books, photographs, sound recordings, diaries, letters, advertisements, and many other materials. These are often found in archives and/or special collections sections of academic libraries.
Materials not held by the CSU Stanislaus University Library may be available through Link+ or via Interlibrary Loan. Check with the librarian if you have questions about availibility.

Primary Materials in Archival Collections

In the Advanced Search, Limit "Format" to  Archival Materials
AUTHOR: search the author's name to find materials someone has written
KEYWORD search:   the following terms often lead to primary sources -- autobiography, personal narratives, letters, correspondence, diaries, or memoirs.
Most books identified in WorldCat (and not available in the CSU Stanislaus Library) may be borrowed via Interlibrary Loan.
In the First Person
Index to primary source materials available in over 3,000 historical archives around the country. Includes information on over 15,000 people, including access to the full-text of 20,000 diary entries, 60,000 letters, and 17,000 oral histories.
Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States
General overview of NARA's federal records indicating general types of of materials were deposited by federal agencies for specific time periods.   NARA's online catalog includes more detailed information of what is actually held by NARA but covers only selected, specific collections.
Directory of archives and manuscript repositories in the United States
Guide to archival collections of primary source materials available across the country.
CTU Main Ref CD3020 .D49 1988
Subject collections
This guide, available in the library's reference collection, describes special book collections and subject emphases as reported by university, college, public, and special libraries and museums in the United States and Canada.
CTU Main Ref Z731 .A78

Selected Primary Sources on the Internet

Research libraries and institutions have special, rare collections of books, photographs, sound recordings, diaries, letters, advertisements, and many other materials. Recently some of these collections have been digitized and are available to the general public. The sites below include some notable examples of primary source materials avaialable online.
Includes images, documents, and other primary source materials related to California history and culture provided by the University of California and cultural organizations. Calisphere's primary sources include photographs, documents, newspapers, political cartoons, works of art, diaries, transcribed oral histories, advertising, and other cultural artifacts. The site also provides a single entry point to more than 300 UC-created web sites on a wide variety of subjects. The images and documents are aligned with California's K-12 Content Standards.
Library of Congress American Memory Collection
Includes more than 7 million items from the Library of Congress.
Bancroft Library
UC Berkeley's rare books and special collections library.  Includes documents from the Free Speech Movement and the Disability Movement.
Making of America Project (University of Michigan)
A project developed by Cornell University and the University of Michigan.  Provides digitized access to primary information sources describing American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction.  Currently includes 8500 books and 50,000 journal articles.  
Also available via Cornell University.
New York Public Library Digital Collection
Collections include performing arts, the Hudson River, the American West, African Americans
Electronic Text Center.  University of Virginia.
Cornell Library Digital Collections
Includes the Making of America, math, agriculture.
Digital Scriptorium Projects
Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library.  Duke University.
Includes advertising, music, women, Renaissance, elections.
Profiles in Science.  National Library of Medicine
Archival collections of prominent twentieth-century biomedical scientists.