Skip to Main Content

Primary vs. Secondary Sources: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

Primary vs. secondary sources

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.

Primary Secondary
Definition First-hand account of an event, original source A work that interprets, summarizes, or analyzes a historical event or phenomenon
Examples of Sources
  • autobiographies, letters, e-mails, diaries, speeches, interviews
  • documents, laws, treaties
  • raw data that has been collected
  • works of literature, arts, music
  • newspaper account of events by someone on the scene
  • articles, books, biographies which summarize and interpret the original statements
  • encyclopedias, dictionaries, textbooks
  • analysis of statistics
  • criticism of literature, art, and music
  • secondary account 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. 

Tip: "sources" is the official subject sub-heading used in the Library Catalog 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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.