Primary and Secondary Sources

SOURCES of information for original research, college course term papers, essays and other scholarly works come in several types. They are primary sources, secondary sources and synthesizing sources. The quality of scholarship is judged and the credence given to conclusions is often dependent on the writer’s use of primary and secondary sources.


Primary sources are the original items which have been produced by an author, artist, diarist, musician, scientist, etc. The documents or objects of primary data are studied, assessed, evaluated and commented upon by researcher or student. What is considered a primary source may vary from discipline to discipline. It may vary within a discipline because one person may use an item as a primary source and another may regard it as secondary. Every step away from the original increases the possibility of misinterpretation of the original meaning.

Primary data is that which has no precedent. In any historical research it is the experience of those who were there. It is the personal observations of the scientist reporting his/her work. Primary literature is found in books, magazine and journal articles, manuscripts, archives, newspapers, government publications and documents, diaries, maps, tapes and other artifacts. Microform copies of such works are sometimes used as primary sources.


Secondary sources are the books, journal articles, magazine and newspaper accounts, films, etc. which have been written about the person, item or topic in question. Book reviews, literary and scientific criticism, essays, biographical sources and bibliographies are secondary sources. Sometimes secondary sources are the only and best information available. They may also be the focus of your current research activity.

It is important for students to learn about the use of primary and secondary sources when studying an issue or topic. The synthesizing sources and finding aids direct searchers to both of the above source types.


Synthesizing sources are the encyclopedias, specialized dictionaries, discipline handbooks, reviews of literature and reference works which summarize the "state of the art" about a subject or topic at a particular time. When starting to learn about a subject, synthesizing sources written by experts are the best place to begin. The cited references in synthesizing and secondary sources can direct searchers to primary sources. They are also an indication of the thoroughness of these sources and an indication of their reliability. Synthesizing sources are a good place to start.


The following set and sequence of finding aids will assist in locating information from all three types of sources described above.

1. Library Catalog. Card catalog or computer database, the library catalog directs to its holdings. The Busse Center Library's catalog (Horizon) has several indexes so it may be searched by subject, author, and keyword. A keyword search will search for the word within a subject heading. Most college catalogs use Library of Congress Subject Headings. Use the large red LCSH books to find the subject heading(s) commonly used for the topic you are researching.

The books in the catalog are identified as reference books or reserve books if they are not circulating books (may be checked out). The indexes and lists of references at the end of chapters or end of books are helpful in locating source materials. Audiovisual (videos, tapes, kits, slides, CD's) materials are also cataloged.

2. Reference Books. The general and specialized dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks, almanacs, literature reviews, legal materials, census and statistical materials are found in the Reference Section of the library.

These are excellent starting points and are the synthesizing sources mentioned on page 1. Again, pay heed to the lists of references.

The Busse Library also maintains a Desktop Reference collection of websites similar to the materials held in a print reference section. This permits you 24 hour access to online reference works.

3. Periodical Indexes. Paper, CD-ROM and online databases index and sometimes abstract large collections of citations of literature published throughout the world. It is important to select the correct database(s) for the topic under investigation. Busse Library subscribes to many electronic periodical indexes and full-text article databases. These are accessed on campus from the databases' directory webpage.

Periodical indexes often have lists of subject headings or a thesaurus which alert the user to the terms used in that particular database for the subjects included. The terms used may vary considerably from database to database. Use them. Electronic periodical indexes can also be searched by keywords.

Most databases will have some information on most topics. However each database indexes a segment of the available literature. Some databases cover specific topics more thoroughly because of the periodicals included. Compare your findings as you go along.

Note# A6 summarizes the print PERIODICAL INDEXES in the Busse Center Library. Use it to help select the most appropriate starting points or the next step on your search.

4. Newspaper Indexes. Some periodical indexes include citations to newspaper articles and full-text articles. There are also databases which are only of newspapers. Many short and unsupported articles are indexed from newspapers, so it pays to analyze the citation carefully.

5. Government Publications. The various governments and governmental agencies around the world produce and store vast amounts of primary and secondary source material on every imaginable topic. They also produce synthesizing documents in the form of censuses, statistical compilations, etc. The Busse Center Library collects some government publications which are integrated into the Reference and regular Circulating Collections. There are also many governmental websites linked to the Desktop Reference pages.

6. Use your contacts and your senses. Ask your instructors for suggestions of source materials. Ask the reference librarians. Browse periodicals, newspapers and the books in the vicinity of those you locate using the Library Catalog. Listen to the radio and watch television to collect information as well as to be entertained. Much relevant and useful information is found serendipitously. You never know when a reference will be handy.